SEATTLE, Wash. -– No one will deny that 21-month-old Natalie’s dimpled smile is delightful, but even though it's been months since she was discharged from hospital, the toddler is still suffering from complications due to pertussis (or whooping cough as it is commonly known).
Health officials in Washington have made her a posterchild for their campaign on the importance of getting everyone -- infants, adolescents, and adults -- vaccinated against the disease.
“Natalie’s story is just one example of why we have put so much emphasis on the need to get infants and young children vaccinated,” noted Dr. Maxine Hayes, state health officer with the Washington State Department of Health, during a jointly held media roundtable with her agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on June 27. “But this is something everybody — even teens and adults — need to be protected against,” added Hayes.
The event, organized by New America Media, was set up to drive home to ethnic communities the importance of getting vaccinated against whooping cough. Twelve outlets from local ethnic media participated in the event.
Pertussis is known as whooping cough because of the “whooping” sound that comes when someone with the infection gasps for air after coughing fits. The number of cases of whooping cough is at levels not seen since the 1940s in Washington. And local health officials worry that these numbers will continue to grow, especially among young children, who are more vulnerable to the disease.
“It’s a miracle we haven’t had an infant death,” Dr. Hayes noted, adding: “But it’s only a matter of time.”
Around 450 cases have been reported in King County so far this year. In Washington State, 2,786 cases have been reported in the first half of 2012, which is more than 10 times the total number of cases reported in all of 2011. Officials have declared an epidemic in Washington, the first state in the nation to do so this year.
Dr. Tao Kwan-Gett, medical epidemiologist for Public Health–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 there may be even more cases that have gone unreported because many adults and teens have mild symptoms and don’t seek medical attention.
The bacteria that cause this disease is spread by 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 common illnesses like a cold, noted Stacey Martin, an epidemiologist with the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
Around 80 percent of the time the disease is transmitted to infants from family members and caregivers, Martin said, which is why it is important that every family member get vaccinated, not just infants or young children. This includes parents, grandparents, nannies, babysitters – and anyone else who will be caring for a baby.
“It’s one of the most commonly occurring diseases that can be prevented by vaccines,” Martin pointed out.
The whooping cough vaccine for children six years and younger is called DTaP. It provides protection against not only whooping cough, but also diphtheria and tetanus.
At two months, children should start the five-shot series of the DTaP vaccine, with the last shot being given before a child enters school, at 4 through 6 years of age.
Everyone 11 years old or older should receive a single dose of the whooping cough booster shot, called TDaP . This is especially important for pregnant women and those in close contact with infants. TDaP should be given as soon as possible and no matter when someone got their last tetanus booster.
State health officials at the briefing were not able to give an exact racial and ethnic breakdown of the disease. There is a possible increase in Hispanics, and they emphasized, “every community is vulnerable.”
They also purchased more than 27,000 doses of the Tdap vaccine for the state’s uninsured and underinsured adults.
Community health clinics and some pharmacies offer the shot at a discounted price of about $15, which can be waived if you can’t afford to pay. Check with your local health department about where this vaccine is available in your communities. The regular cost can run anywhere between $60 and $100, which is covered by most health insurance plans. Washington state provides whooping cough vaccines for all children through age 18. Children can get vaccinated at their regular health care provider’s office.
The Washington State Department of Health has translated materials on its website.
Public health officials of King County, which is where Seattle is located, also has translated information about pertussis in many languages on the web.
For more information about the disease and how to get yourself protected, go to the state’s department of public health website at http://www.doh.wa.gov/.
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