SEATTLE – No one will deny that 21-month-old Natalie’s dimpled smile is delightful, but the toddler is likely to lose a leg from complications from the treatment she received for whooping cough in the intensive care unit of a Seattle hospital when she was an infant.
That’s why health officials in Washington have made her a poster child for their campaign on the importance of getting young children vaccinated against the disease.
“We have put a lot of emphasis on why infants should be protected” because they are the most vulnerable, noted Dr. Maxine Hayes, state health officer with the Washington State Department of Health, during a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)-sponsored media pertussis roundtable here June 27. “But this is something everybody needs to be protected against, even if you’ve been vaccinated once; even if you’ve had the whooping cough.”
The event, organized by New America Media, was to drive home to ethnic communities the importance of getting vaccinated against the harmful bacterial disease that has become an epidemic in recent weeks in the state. About 12 representatives of local ethnic media representatives participated. Most said that in their language whooping cough was called “the 100-day cough.” One reporter said he had had the respiratory disease three months earlier and “it was really painful.”
The number of cases of pertussis, popularly known as whooping cough because of the sound the coughing fit produces that makes it hard to breathe, has reached such high numbers in Washington that health officials here worry that the numbers could spike even more. They have declared an epidemic, the first state in the nation to do so this year. They have sought help from federal experts to contain it.
Around 260 cases have been reported in Seattle so far. In Washington state, 2,500 cases have been reported in the first half of 2012, which is already 10 times the total number of cases reported in all of 2011. Dr. Tao Kwan-Gett, medical epidemiologist for public health with Seattle and King County, said every county in Washington has been impacted by pertussis.
“The number of pertussis cases we can count is just the tip of the iceberg,” he asserted, noting that in King County.
The disease can cause brain damage, pneumonia and death, especially in very young children. It can be treated with antibiotics.
High as the numbers are in about 10 counties in the state, there have been no reported deaths so far. “But it’s only a matter of time,” Heyes warned.
The CDC says pertussis is common in the United States, with epidemics every three to five years.
The bacteria that cause this disease -- are spread via sneezing or coughing, as well as through direct contact with an infected person. The disease often begins with symptoms that can be easily mistaken for such common illnesses as the flu or a cold, noted Stacey W. Martin, an epidemiologist with the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease. Symptoms generally appear six to 21 days after exposure to an infected person.
“Lot of the infected people who are walking around are adults, and many of them don’t know they are carrying it,” Heyes said.
Around 75 to 85 percent of the disease is transmitted in households, Martin said, which is why it is important that every family member gets vaccinated.
“It’s the most vaccine-preventable disease,” Martin pointed out.
The pertussis vaccine is usually combined with diphtheria and tetanus vaccines, which gives it the name Tdap.
Pregnant women should get the Tdap vaccine in their late second or early third trimester, if they did not have one as a teenager or adult.
Children two months to seven years old should get a four-shot series of the vaccine, starting at age two months and ending before entering kindergarten.
During a whooping cough outbreak in California in 2010, immunized children between eight and 12 years old were found more likely to catch the bacterial disease than kids of other ages, suggesting that the childhood vaccine wears off as kids get older, according to health officials. That is why it is important to get booster shots, Heyes said, noting that the interval between booster shots for the new vaccine that is currently given “is yet to be determined.”
State health officials at the briefing were not able to give a racial and ethnic breakdown of the disease, but emphasized that “every community is vulnerable.”
They said they have purchased some 27,000 doses of the Tdap vaccine for the state’s uninsured and the underinsured.
Community health clinics offer the shot at a discounted price of $15. The regular cost can run anywhere between $60 and $100.
Public health officials of King County, which is where Seattle is located, have translated information about pertussis into many languages and posted it on their website.
For more information about the disease and how to get yourself protected, go to the state’s department of public health website at www.doh.wa.gov. King County residents can visit www.kingcounty.gov/health/pertussis.