Whooping cough on the rise in the Treasure Valley

csewell@idahostatesman.comMarch 31, 2014 

The Treasure Valley is experiencing a spike in confirmed cases of pertussis, also called whooping cough.

Central District Health, which covers Ada, Elmore, Boise and Valley counties, has seen 25 confirmed cases - almost four times as many cases of pertussis reported to the district between January and March when compared to the same time period in previous years, said spokeswoman Christine Myron. Central District usually sees about 7 cases from January to March, she said.

The adjacent health district, Southwest District Health, which covers Canyon, Adams, Gem, Owyhee, Payette and Washington counties, reports 26 confirmed cases so far this year, nearly three times as many cases as reported during the same period last year.

"We believe this year’s numbers reflect just a fraction of the cases, however," Myron said. "A lot of people don’t go to their doctor for treatment and not all those who do will be specifically tested for whooping cough, which leads us to believe there are many more cases out there."

Whooping cough is a highly contagious disease that can cause serious illness in infants, children and adults. It begins with cold-like symptoms, such as sneezing, runny nose, a mild cough and a low-grade fever, but symptoms can vary. Typically, after 1 to 2 weeks, the cough becomes more severe, especially at night, and cough medicines usually do not help the cough.

The cases being reported to Central District Health are primarily in infants and schoolchildren. "It appears this trend will continue for at least a few more months, maybe longer," Myron said.

Health care officials are particularly concerned about infants, who can't get the pertussis vaccine until they are at least 2 months old and have a higher risk of death from pertussis. The health district recommends people who come in contact with infants be immunized. It also recommends pertussis immunizations for all children.

In 2013, Idaho reported 214 whooping cough cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Idaho's incidence rate of 13.4 cases per 100,000 people is above the national incidence rate of 7.72.

So, why the increase? Since the early 1980s, there has been an overall trend of an increase in reported pertussis cases, Myron said. "Pertussis is naturally cyclic in nature, with peaks in disease every 3 to 5 years. But for the past 20 to 30 years, we've seen the peaks getting higher and overall case counts going up." Reasons for the increase include more awareness of pertussis, better testing and reporting, broader circulation of the bacteria that cause it and waning immunity, she said.

CDHD provides immunizations to children ages 0 to 18 on a sliding scale and can bill most insurances. For an appointment, call 327-7450.

Southwest District Health provides immunizations to adults and children. For an appointment, call 455-5345.

Central District Health: More about whooping cough

What is pertussis?

A highly contagious respiratory disease caused by bacteria found in the nose and throat.

What are the symptoms of pertussis?

It usually begins with cold-like symptoms including sneezing, runny nose, a mild, occasional cough and low-grade fever. Then the cough becomes more severe. Often a person has attacks or spasms of coughing. The coughing may cause a person to vomit, cough up mucous, or lose his/her breath. Coughing may continue for weeks or months. On occasion, a child may make a crowing sound (whoop) when she/he draws a breath after severely coughing. Teens and adults usually have milder disease.

What are the complications of pertussis?

Serious complications are most common among infants and young children. They may include pneumonia, swelling of the brain and sometimes death. Most deaths occur among unvaccinated children or children too young to be vaccinated.

How is pertussis spread?

Pertussis bacteria are spread from person-to-person through the air by coughing or sneezing, sharing food, sharing eating utensils, sharing drinks or kissing.

Who can get pertussis?

People of all ages can get pertussis. Neither previous infection nor vaccination provides lifelong immunity.

How soon after infection do symptoms occur?

Usually 7 to 10 days, with a range of 5 to 21 days.

How can we prevent the spread of pertussis?

Infected people who are not treated should stay home for 3 weeks after their coughing started. Infected people who are treated may return to day care, work or school after completing 5 days of appropriate antibiotic treatment. It is very important that they take the entire antibiotic that has been prescribed. Get vaccinated regardless of age, previous infection or past immunization.

What should people do after they have been exposed to pertussis?

Anyone that has cold-like symptoms or a cough should be promptly examined and tested by a physician. The physician should be told that the sick person has had contact with someone who has been diagnosed with pertussis. Household and close contacts who aren’t sick should take an effective antibiotic prescribed by a physician. Make sure that your pertussis vaccinations are up to date.

What can be done to prevent pertussis?

Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent becoming ill. Make sure you and your children are appropriately immunized. When you cough or sneeze, do it into your sleeve at the bend of your arm. Use disposable tissues. Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly.

Questions about immunization schedules and vaccine recommendations may be directed to your doctor or to the CDHD Immunization Nurses’ Line at 327-8615.

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