Whooping cough cases rise fourfold
Illness at ‘epidemic levels’ locally
Cases of whooping cough in Ventura County have more than quadrupled over the past year, according to the Ventura County Health Care Agency.
From May 2009 to date, there have been 70 whooping cough cases reported in the county. In the year before that, only 15 were reported.
“Whooping cough is definitely at epidemic levels in Ventura County over the last few years,” said Dr. Heather Nichols, a pediatrician at Santa Paula Medical Clinic West, one of the ambulatory care clinics in the county public health system. “There are certainly cases that are severe enough to require hospitalization.”
The state Department of Public Health stopped short of calling it an epidemic but did issue an April news release saying reported pertussis cases, or whooping cough, increased more than 50 percent in California in the first quarter of 2010 compared with the same period of 2009 — from 153 to 230. Two infants under the age of 3 months have died this year from it.
State health officials are asking all age groups to get vaccinated for pertussis, to protect those most vulnerable to the disease. Even adults who were vaccinated as children can get the disease, officials said.
“Pertussis is a highly contagious disease,” said Dr. Mark Horton, director of the California Department of Public Health. “Unimmunized or incompletely immunized young infants are particularly vulnerable. Illness in this age group frequently leads to hospitalization or can be fatal.”
Pertussis is an upper respiratory tract infection characterized by severe coughing spells in which the patient may make a “whooping” sound when he or she breathes.
“The incidence of pertussis waxes and wanes,” said Dr. Tom Clark, a medical epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. “In recent years, it’s been quite high.”
Pertussis last peaked in California in 2005, when 3,182 cases, 574 hospitalizations and seven deaths were reported. That same year, 25,000 cases were reported nationally.
‘Public’s education is low’
In the past five years, Clark said, cases in the United States have fluctuated from 8,000 to 25,000 per year, which is up from a previous baseline of 1,000 cases.
Public awareness is a problem, Nichols said. She believes pertussis is not uppermost on a physician’s watch list if he or she primarily sees adults.
“Doctors who see adults don’t often think about immunizations the way pediatricians do,” Nichols said. “I think the public’s education is low on pertussis.”
The vaccine itself is “not one of our best,” Nichols added. “We don’t produce a wonderful immunity with it.”
Children generally get five immunizations from age 2 months to 4 years, but only about 87 percent of kids build immunity. To make matters worse, Nichols said, our immunity to whooping cough wanes as we age, making even vaccinated adults more prone to pertussis.