Whooping cough numbers alarm state health officials

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The very young residents of Washington are getting whooping cough, or pertussis, at much higher rates than people of other ages, state Department of Health officials said.

The rate of whooping cough in babies is nearly 10 times greater than the combined rate of all people of all ages in the state.

So far this year, 58 infants younger than a year old have been diagnosed with whooping cough. Twenty-two of them were hospitalized, and two died. Of the 22 babies who were hospitalized, 18 were 3 months old or younger.

It's serious business, said state health officer and pediatrician Dr. Maxine Hayes. "Older kids and adults can help protect babies by getting the pertussis vaccine. By being vaccinated, close contacts of infants create a protective 'cocoon' for newborns and infants who can't yet be vaccinated or have not completed their initial vaccine series."

With kids back in school and back in close contact with other students, the risk for spreading illnesses increases, health experts warn.

Pertussis -- caused by a germ that lives in the mouth, nose and throat -- is highly contagious and spreads easily from person to person through coughing and sneezing. It causes coughing spells so severe that it is hard for infants to eat, drink, or breathe.

These episodes can last for weeks and lead to pneumonia, seizures and even death. Older kids and adults may have milder symptoms than babies and may mistake their symptoms for a cold or persistent cough while continuing to spread the illness, Hayes noted.

Symptoms of the illness usually appear five to 10 days after exposure, but can take as long as 21 days. The first symptoms are similar to those of a common cold; a runny nose, sneezing, low-grade fever and a mild, occasional cough, experts say.

The cough gradually becomes severe and, after one to two weeks, the patient has spasmodic bursts of numerous, rapid coughs. The characteristic high-pitched "whoop," which is more common in children, comes from breathing in after a coughing episode.

During such an attack, the patient may turn blue, vomit and become exhausted. Between coughing attacks, the patient usually appears normal.

The coughing attacks occur more frequently at night and increase in frequency for a couple of weeks, remain at the same level for two to three weeks, then gradually decrease. Coughing may last as long as 100 days.

Cough medicines usually do not help eliminate this cough. Recovery is gradual, but coughing episodes can recur for months after the onset of pertussis.

Antibiotics can reduce the contagious period, the DOH said.

A total of 431 cases of whooping cough from 26 counties in Washington state have been reported so far this year. Last year at this time there were 378 cases. Three counties have had babies hospitalized with confirmed or suspected pertussis within the last two weeks. Notices emphasizing the risk to infants are being sent to health-care providers by public health agencies in several counties.

The pertussis vaccine, "Tdap," is available for adolescents and adults through age 64. Pregnant women are urged to get vaccinated, as are health-care workers of all ages who have contact with infants.

People of all ages should get immunized if they have close contact with a baby; this is especially important for siblings of infants, who should be up-to-date on DTaP and other recommended immunizations, the DOH stated.

For more details, visit www.doh.wa.gov/cfh/Immunize or call 360-236-3595.

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