Colorado dodges whooping cough deaths, but declares epidemic

By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon

An unusual summer spike of whooping cough cases in Colorado has prompted health experts here to declare an epidemic and call for both children and adults to get immunized.

A strong anti-vaccine movement in Colorado has meant that the state has lagged behind the rest of the country on many immunizations. Only about 85 percent of children and adults who should be protected from whooping cough are fully vaccinated.

So far this year, Colorado health officials have tracked 715 cases of whooping cough, also known as pertussis. That compares to an average of just 158 cases during the same period in each of the previous five years. Other states that have declared epidemics are Washington and Wisconsin. In 2010, 10 babies died in California from an outbreak there.

Babies, adults who live and work around infants and toddlers, and children heading back to school who are 11 to 14 years old should all be immunized, health experts said.

The epidemic is most severe in the Denver area with the highest number of cases emerging in Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Denver and Jefferson counties.

We are alerting the public to an epidemic number of pertussis cases in Colorado and are urging Coloradans to get vaccinated against pertussis, said Dr. Chris Urbina, chief medical officer and executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Colorado has not had a fatality from whooping cough this year. But the disease is extremely dangerous for infants. About half of infants who get whooping cough will need to be hospitalized and one or two of every 100 babies who get it will die, said Dr. Rachel Herlihy, a preventive medicine physician and director of Colorados immunization programs.

She said there have been cases of newborn babies who have been exposed in the first days of their lives to the disease by infected adults or children.

Its not just moms. It could be health care workers or grandparents, visitors or siblings, Herlihy said.

Weve been very fortunate in Colorado not to have had a death (from whooping cough) in a few years, but it is certainly possible, she said.

Typically cases increase in the fall, winter and early spring.

Were seeing quite a bit right now occurring in the summer and thats unusual, Herlihy said.

She also said theres been an age shift this year.

The highest number of cases typically occurs in infants. But health officials are also seeing a spike among school-age children. In part, Herlihy believes thats because immunity in older children is waning as they age. Thats why its vital for children who are about 12 years old to get another dose of the TDaP vaccine, which immunizes against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis.

Infants under six months are too young to have received all the vaccine doses necessary to protect them from pertussis. So, its critical for people who live and work around them to be immunized.

The Tdap vaccine is recommended for the following groups:

  • Pregnant women in the third or late second trimester
  • Parents of infants under 12 months of age.
  • Caregivers of infants, including grandparents, babysitters and child care workers.
  • Health care workers
  • Others who plan on having close contact with an infant
  • All adults need a tetanus booster if they have previously not received TDaP.

Pertussis is a bacterial infection of the respiratory tract that can easily spread through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The illness often starts with cold-like symptoms, including sneezing, a runny nose and a mild cough. Often there is no fever or just a low-grade fever. The cough becomes more severe during the first week or two and people who are ill can have coughing fits, followed by a high-pitched whoop or a coughing fit so severe that the person vomits. The cough may last for a couple of months and is more frequent at night.

Since symptoms in adults and adolescents can be relatively mild, individuals may not realize they have pertussis and can easily spread it to others. Young infants with pertussis often do not have a cough but gasp or struggle to breathe.

For more information on pertussis, click here.

For more information on immunizations, click here.

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About PERTUSSIS (Whooping Cough) causes coughing spells so bad that it is hard for infants to eat, drink or breathe. These coughing spells can last for weeks. It can lead to pneumonia, seizures (jerking and staring spells), brain damage and death. It is spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes and spreads germs.

Children should get five doses of DTaP vaccine, one dose at each of the following ages:

2 months

4 months

6 months

15-18 months

4-6 years

11-12 years

Anyone who comes in contact with your baby parents, grandparents, caregivers, siblings, plus extended family and friends should receive the adult booster (TDaP) to help shield newborns from whooping cough. In January 2011, the CDC and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) updated the TDaP vaccine recommendations to also include certain adults 65 years of age and older and under-vaccinated children aged 7 10 years.