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Whooping Cough Reaches Epidemic Levels in Washington State

The State Department of Health urges all teens and adults to either get a whooping cough booster or check with their health care provider that their immunization schedule is up-to-date.

State Secretary of Health Mary Selecky announced Tuesday that whooping cough disease has reached epidemic levels in Washington.

So far in 2012, 640 cases have been reported in 23 counties as of March 31. Public Health - Seattle & King County officials confirmed 100 cases in King County over the same period. This compares to 94 cases statewide during this same time period last year, putting Washington on-pace to have the highest number of reported cases in decades.

“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 to be vaccinated to help protect babies that are too young for the vaccine.”

Whooping cough vaccines are recommended for all children (free for minors under age 19 at participating locations) and adults. The shots children get wear off over time. Everyone age 11 and older should get a whooping cough booster, called Tdap.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends adults 19 and older to get the Tdap booster shot every 10 years. Pregnant women who have never had a dose of Tdap should get one, after the 20th week of gestation and preferably during the 3rd trimester.

The Tdap vaccines such as Adacel are available at most local pharmacies, but not all. On Mercer Island, only the and pharmacies in the Town Center were stocked with the vaccine.

Health care providers may charge an office visit fee and a fee to give the vaccine, called an administration fee.

It’s especially important for anyone who has close contact with babies younger than 12 months to get a dose of Tdap to help protect the baby from whooping cough. This includes parents, siblings, grandparents, health care providers, and child care providers.

“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.”

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.

Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a highly contagious respiratory illness spread by coughing and sneezing. It affects people of all ages — but is most serious in infants, especially those too young to get vaccinated or who aren’t fully protected. It causes cold-like symptoms followed by a long, severe cough that can last for weeks. Adolescents and adults often get a much milder case of whooping cough, but they can still spread it.

King County officials said over the past 10 years, the reported number of Whooping Cough cases have ranged from 37 cases in 2009 to 316 cases in 2005. 13% of cases reported in 2012 to date have been in infants under 12 months of age, the age group with the highest risk of death from pertussis (a proportion similar to past years); 6% of cases were hospitalized for their illness, all were infants under 12 months of age. No deaths have been reported. Unvaccinated persons are at increased risk for pertussis and severe pertussis.

Of the 100 confirmed cases in King County this year, 47 were up to date on pertussis vaccine, 49 were not up to date on vaccine, and vaccination data was unknown for 4 cases.

The State Department of Health is introducing a new public service radio announcement this week reminding people how serious whooping cough can be and to get vaccinated. The spot features Secretary Selecky along with a Snohomish County Mom who talks about losing her newborn daughter to whooping cough.

Weekly updates of case counts in counties throughout the state are posted online on Tuesday afternoons around three o’clock.

More information on preventing whooping cough is available on the Department of Health website, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

— Information from State Department of Health

kit April 04, 2012 at 06:06 AM
Pertussis is definitely something to worry about with regard to babies, especially small ones. However, as a New York Times article points out, there has been no correlation between vaccination rates and the incidence of pertussis. (see http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/16/vaccination-is-steady-but-pertussis-is-surging/) Perhaps a better public health strategy would be to educate the public on keeping coughs away from babies and their caregivers, and educate caregivers to avoid crowded and/or close social situations until the baby is about six months old, after which the immune system is more able to deal with the infection.
Kendall Watson April 04, 2012 at 06:02 PM
It seems somewhat worrying that nearly half of all cases confirmed in King County were up-to-date on their booster shots. I've contacted my local health care provider for this — turns out I wasn't up-to-date on my Pertussis shot!
Kendall Watson April 04, 2012 at 10:26 PM
In response to a question about why the spike in Whooping Cough is happening now, Public Health - Seattle & King County epidemiologist Dr. Tao Kwan-Gett emailed the following response: "For reasons that are incompletely understood, pertussis rates rise and fall every 3-5 years. The degree to which any given community is affected by this cycle depends in part on how much of the population is vaccinated. We don't know whether the rise we are seeing could have been prevented by higher vaccination rates. But there's little doubt that communities with higher vaccination rates will be less affected by the rise. Well-vaccinated communities will have less pertussis activity than communities that aren't as well vaccinated."

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