Whooping cough has reached epidemic levels in Washington State, Washington State Secretary of Health Mary Selecky announced Tuesday.
Since the beginning of the year, 640 cases of whooping cough have been reported and confirmed in 23 of the state’s 39 counties. At this time last year, only 94 cases had been reported, Sec. Selecky said.
The actual number of cases may be far higher, Selecky said, because only about 10 percent to 12 percent of cases are reported. “This is the tip of the iceberg,” she said.
Infants are most vulnerable to the disease, and there have been at four infant deaths in the state due to whooping cough over the past years.
“We’re very concerned about the continued rapid increase in reported cases,” said Secretary of Health Mary Selecky. “This disease can be very serious for young babies, who often get whooping cough from adults and other family members. We want all teens and adults who haven’t had Tdap [a pertussis vaccine] to be vaccinated to help protect babies that are too young for the vaccine.”
In the epidemic continues at its current rate, the state is on track to see the most cases it has seen since 1942, Sec. Selecky said.
Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a highly contagious respiratory illness spread by coughing and sneezing.
It is caused by a bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. The name, pertussis, comes from Latin, from per-‘away, extremely’ + Latin tussis ‘a cough.’
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Preventing, in the 20th century, pertussis was one of the most common childhood diseases and a major cause of child death in the United States.
Initially, an infection may seem like just a cold. However, during this phase of the infection, which can last several weeks, a person can spread the disease to others.
Patients typically then go on to develop a severe, persistent–often wracking–cough that can last for several more weeks.
The coughing fits can be prolonged and are often followed by a long inhalation that causes the “whooping” sound that gives the disease its name.
The bouts of coughing can leave victims breathless and unable to eat, drink or sleep. Complications of the infection include pneumonia, seizures and death.
Whooping cough can affect people of all ages — but is most serious in infants, especially those too young to get vaccinated or who aren’t fully protected.
There is a vaccine that can prevent infection, but it is not effective in newborns or infants and it wears off with time.
Health officials therefore recommend that anyone who has contact with newborns and infants be vaccinated or, if they have been vaccinated, to make sure their vaccination is up-to-date.
Sec. Selecky urged parents to make sure their children are fully vaccinated and up-to-date and that teens and adults to check to see whether they need a booster.
Because newborns cannot be vaccinated, pregnant women should make sure they are vaccinated because they can transfer some of their immunity to their newborn that will confer some protection during the first months of life.
In addition, being vaccinated will reduce the risk that they will contract the infection and spread it to their child.
“Many adults don’t realize they need to be vaccinated, or they assume they have been,” said State Health Officer Dr. Maxine Hayes. “We’re asking everyone to verify with their health care provider that they’re up-to-date on vaccines. We’re also asking everyone to use good health manners — like cover your cough and stay home when you’re sick — that will also help prevent spreading whooping cough.”
For full information about pertussis vaccines and about who should get vaccinated go to the Department of Health’s pertussis information page.
Free vaccine available
All recommended vaccines are offered at no cost to all kids under 19 through health care provider offices participating in the state’s Childhood Vaccine Program.
Health care providers may charge an office visit fee and a fee to give the vaccine, called an administration fee.
People who cannot afford the administration fee can ask their regular health care provider if they’ll waive that cost.
Most health insurance carriers will cover the whooping cough vaccine; adults should double-check with their health plan.
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This story originally appeared on LocalHealthGuide on April 3, 2012.