Whooping cough, or pertussis, has been making headlines around Washington State, recently, since reported cases in 2011 increased 50 percent over 2010, to 912 from 608. This is troubling, because Washington already had elevated reports of whooping cough, and has been, for the greater part of a decade, working on trying to bring those numbers down.
Because whooping cough tends to have outbreaks on two-to-five-year cycles, comparing one year to the next can raise unwarranted alarm. But if you look back from 2011, you don’t see a similar spike until 2005. And already cases from one week in 2012, the fourth, have exceeded all but those from three weeks in 2011. If pertussis isn’t controlled, due to its highly infectious nature, it can quickly grow into a health emergency: In 2010, California had 9,143 cases, the most in 63 years. “Previously, the peak was in 2005 when there were 3,182 cases reported,” says the CDC.
In summer 2011, Reuters singled Seattle out as a wrong-way leader: “In the Seattle area between 2002 and 2007, 136 out of every 100,000 infants developed whooping cough each year, on average. Among every 100,000 U.S. infants overall, however, only 97 developed whooping cough in 2005.” But it’s in Snohomish County, to the north, that whooping cough has reached epidemic proportions. To combat the contagion, they’re offering free vaccinations.
These days, incidence is growing in babies under one year old, who wouldn’t have finished a full course of vaccination shots yet–“The first three shots are given at 2, 4, and 6 months,” says the CDC. Unfortunately, they are also at risk for the severest form, which can result in “hospitalization, pneumonia, convulsions, and rarely, brain damage or death,” says Seattle & King County Public Health.
Their best defense is a good personal space offense: keeping anyone with a cough away. Expecting? “[The vaccine] Tdap can be given during pregnancy, preferably in the third or late second trimester. If not given during pregnancy it should be given right after the baby is born.” And if you’re going to be spending any significant time around a new baby, the CDC recommends “getting vaccinated with Tdap [about $30]–at least two weeks before coming into close contact with an infant.”
It’s important to note that “whooping” doesn’t actually describe the cough, but the desperate inhaling of air after the coughing fit. (If your child is barking like a seal, it may be croup. Or a selkie.) And, you can have pertussis without the whoop, too–many red-faced people with a three-week cough never think they have pertussis, but they do. People of all ages can get it, even if vaccinated, as the effectiveness declines with time. It’s just harder on infants than adults, though a serious coughing fit can still crack a rib.