Whooping cough strikes San Juan; nine cases documented

Have you got your flu shot? Well, you now might want to consider not only immunizing your child from whooping cough, but getting a booster shot for yourself as well.

The San Juan County Health Department recently reported an outbreak of nine cases of pertussis, also known as “whooping cough” on San Juan Island.

“It’s hard to know yet if it will be a big or a small outbreak,” said county Health Officer Dr. Frank James.

In Washington State, there have been 58 cases of whooping cough in infants less than one year of age so far this year. Twenty-two infants have been hospitalized, 18 of those were three months old or younger, including two infants that died.

According to John Manning, director of the county public health department, children are most susceptible to whooping cough, but the disease is spread by teenagers and adults who need to renew their vaccination.

“You typically get a [immunization] series as a child,” Manning said. “But over the years, the immunization wanes.”

There have been 53 more cases of whooping cough in Washington State this year, so far, than the last.

One of reason for the increase is the lack of immunizations, according to James.

James said that whooping cough outbreaks happen every couple of years and whenever that occurs people get immunized, but once a community is healthy then immunization rates drop.

He estimates that only 85 percent of island residents are immunized, 10 percent less than what he deems safe.

“The key concept is that many people don’t get the vaccine for various reasons and then the disease goes around,” James said. “What we are most fearful is of older kids getting it and infecting a younger child, where it could be fatal. It’s all about preventing that.”

James said that if someone has whooping cough in the household, those living in that home are 80 percent likely to become infected.

Whooping cough causes coughing spells in infants that are so severe they have difficulty eating, drinking and even breathing. These episodes can lead to pneumonia, seizures and death.

“Babies with any trouble breathing or a coughing illness should be checked by a doctor right away,” says county Personal Health Services Manager Susan Leff, a registered nurse.

One problem is that people are infectious even before they realize they have whooping cough because early symptoms — sneezing, runny nose, low-grade fever and mild cough — are mild and similar to a common cold.

Whooping cough differs from the common cold because the cough persists for weeks and, in younger patients, produces a high pitched “whoop” sound.

According to James, whooping cough is highly communicable and spreads through droplets when you cough. They can be inhaled or transfered by picking up the droplets with your hand and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

James recommends people who have a newborn infant in the home, or who come into regular contact with young children get the “Tdap” vaccine for tetanus, pertussis and diphtheria.

“I’ve held a baby in my arms with pertussis and they basically drown in their own fluids, it’s a terrible thing,” James said.

For more info, visit www.doh.wa.gov/cfh/Immunize/diseases/pertussis.