Pertussis usually starts with cold-like symptoms and perhaps a mild cough or fever. The more severe symptoms associated with its common name of whooping cough begin after one to two weeks; these coughing fits can persist for weeks in adults and can be so severe that they cause vomiting.
The disease is even more dangerous for infants, who may have a minimal cough or even no cough at all. But babies can develop a pause in the child’s breathing pattern known as apnea. The Centers for Disease Control reports more than half of patients younger than a year old must be hospitalized.
Health officials are finding a harder time persuading parents that they and their children need pertussis vaccinations.
In part, the immunization effort has become a victim of its overall success, especially among young adults who have no memory of diseases like polio and measles that vaccines have conquered. In addition, vaccinations got a bad rap from a 1990s study that linked a measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism; that study since has been debunked.
What hasn’t been debunked is that Washington state is in the midst of a pertussis epidemic, which the state declared last spring. At the time, Yakima County reported an illness rate of 4.6 per 100,000 residents; as of Aug. 4, that had jumped to 94.1 per 100,000 people, now the third highest in the state.
That has led local health providers to focus more on immunizations, not just for children but also for adults, especially those who are frequently around kids. And that means parents. The state buys all vaccines to cover a number of diseases for children; on top of that, this year it has distributed 41,000 pertussis vaccines free to adults with no health insurance.
Prevention is the best cure, and right now the best prevention is the vaccine, which can ward off the disease or ease symptoms in those who get sick. Officials also urge standard disease-preventing hygiene practices like washing hands, covering the mouth when coughing and staying home when sick.
School soon will be back in session, which raises the chances for the disease to spread among young populations. If not done already, a responsible addition to back-to-school lists is making sure children and adults in the family are up to date on their pertussis immunizations.