San Juan County Health Department: Islands are on alert for whooping cough

San Juan County Health Officer Frank James is asking parents of pre-school and school-aged children to check their children’s vaccination records and be alert for the symptoms of whooping cough, clinically known as pertussis.

This summer, the health department identified three different clusters of confirmed cases on Orcas and San Juan islands.

There have been two recent infant deaths elsewhere in Washington state. In California, nine young children have died and more than 4,000 infections have been recorded this year, the most in more than a half century, the San Juan County Communications Office reported.

Children are most susceptible to pertussis, showing symptoms of spasmodic coughing, gasping for breath, and vomiting. The disease is considered highly communicable, but a vaccine does provide protection. 

Dr. James asks parents who suspect their child may have pertussis to keep their child at home and contact their health care provider to schedule an evaluation. If antibiotics are prescribed, it is important to stay home until all five days of the treatment are completed, to avoid further spreading the pertussis.

All of the fatal California cases occurred in babies too young to be fully immunized against the illness, which is why parents and caretakers are being urged to get booster shots. Typically, babies are given a series of vaccinations, then receive booster shots between ages 4 and 6.

Protection from those initial vaccinations fades over time, so health officials say anyone over the age of 11 who has not had a tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis booster (Tdap) shot should get one as soon as possible. In recent years, our community has had pertussis cases that spread from school children to parents and then through workplaces, leading to lost days from work, the county Communications Office reported. Some adults have reported broken ribs from the spasms of coughing.

James urges county residents of all ages to make sure that their vaccinations are up to date and asks anyone with a cough or cold-like symptoms to take extra precautions to avoid contact with young children. Those at high risk of complications and death are children between birth and 2 years of age. Women in the last three months of pregnancy should exercise care because of the risk to the new infants. These groups should be protected from exposure to possible cases by vaccination of contacts, treatment of contacts and isolation when appropriate.

James emphasizes the importance and effectiveness of simple preventive steps. Always cover your cough and wash hands and surfaces frequently. 

Questions? Call the Health Department at 378-4474.

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