The Rise of Whooping Cough
Yo, whooping cough, what's up? You've got the wrong season, my friend. It's still nowhere near the start of what most moms and dads consider the sick season, but already health officials are warning that we're in the midst of the worst outbreak of whooping cough in more than five decades. *Sigh* Who—or what—is to blame? We asked two pediatricians to explain why pertussis (aka whooping cough), once thought to be an illness of the past, is suddenly back with a vengeance.
"My phones have been ringing off the hook from parents wanting to know about whooping cough and the vaccine," Westlake, California, pediatrician Tanya Remer Altmann, MD, tells BabyZone. And they have good reason to ask. According to statistics released in late July by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 18,000 cases of pertussis have been reported so far in 2012—more than twice the number seen at this point last year. Yes, you heard us: twice. Washington and Wisconsin have reported more than 3,000 cases each, and higher than normal rates have been seen in other states, including New York, Minnesota, and Arizona. At this pace, say CDC officials, the number of pertussis cases in 2012 will be the highest since 1959, when 40,000 illnesses were reported.
So what exactly is whooping cough? It's not as charming as the name may lead you to believe. (No, you may not get a "whoop, whoop.") Whooping cough is a highly contagious infectious disease that can strike people of any age, but is most dangerous to very young children who are not yet fully immunized; the name comes from the whooping sound made when coughing. "These spells can last for weeks and the cough can be so bad that it is hard for infants to eat, drink, or breathe," explains Dr. Altmann.
How Vaccines Come Into Play
So why are rates rising? Does it have anything to do with parents who choose not to vaccinate their kids? Probably not, says the CDC, pointing out that overall vaccination rates for young children are still good—about 84 percent of 3-year-olds have gotten the recommended number of shots. It is true that Washington, one of the states currently experiencing an outbreak, has one of the highest exemption rates for vaccines in the nation, the Wall Street Journal reports. But the CDC maintains that un-vaxed kids don't appear to be a major factor in the outbreak, since most of the youngsters getting sick have been vaccinated.
Then just what is to blame? It could be the vaccine itself. According to the CDC, the pertussis vaccine given to young children for decades was replaced in the late 1990s following concerns about rashes, fevers, and other side effects. While the new version is considered safer, there is some evidence that the current pertussis vaccine (acellular pertussis) may not be as effective at preventing whooping cough in children.
Anish Goyal, MD, a pediatrician based in Hawaii, thinks it's impossible at this stage to pinpoint a definite cause. "It's too early to tell. It could be a problem with the current vaccine, a mutation in the pertussis bacteria itself [making it more resistant to current vaccines] or a greater awareness of the illness, which may have resulted in more frequent testing, detection and reporting of pertussis infections," Dr. Goyal tells BabyZone.
What You Can Do
Dr. Altmann recommends the best thing parents can do right now is to keep calm—and keep vaccinations current, even for adults and teens in the family. "Many hospitals are now giving the TdaP vaccine to women after they deliver so a mom doesn't catch the disease and pass it to her newborn before their baby can be vaccinated," adding that "because immunity to whooping cough can wear off over time, the TdaP vaccine is given at age 11 and every 10 years after. New parents, grandparents, and anyone who cares for a newborn should also receive the vaccine since often it is parents or other caregivers who unknowingly pass whooping cough to a newborn."
How to Treat It
Pertussis, when caught in its early stages, can be treated with antibiotics. What should you be on the look out for? Whooping cough typically starts with run of the mill cold symptoms, like runny nose, congestion, fever and a mild cough. But, after 1-2 weeks of these symptoms, severe coughing can begin and continue for weeks. The CDC advises parents to see a doctor if they or their children develop a prolonged or severe cough.
Scary? Yes. But one thing we can all do right now to keep kids a little safer?
"Practice good hand washing hygiene," recommends Dr. Goyal.
We've already soaped up—have you?
Are cases of pertussis on the rise in your area? What are you doing to take precaution?