What if I told you there were a new communicable disease on the loose that had the potential to cause serious illness or even death, especially in infants? Have I got your attention now?
Actually, it's not new. It's pertussis, also known as whooping cough, a highly contagious respiratory disease that has been around for centuries. It is caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis.
Pertussis is known for uncontrollable, violent coughing which often makes it hard to breathe. After a coughing fit, someone with pertussis often needs to take deep breathes which result in a "whooping" sound. Pertussis most commonly affects infants and young children and can be fatal, especially in babies less than 1 year of age.
Did you know that there were 96 confirmed cases of the disease in the Western U.P. health district (Baraga, Gogebic, Houghton, Keweenaw and Ontonagon counties) in 2010 and an additional 12 cases in 2011?
This fits the national pattern - a few years of little pertussis activity, punctuated by a year or two of high numbers of cases. Pertussis is an endemic (common) disease in the United States, with peaks in disease every three to five years and frequent outbreaks.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have already been more than 30,000 cases and at least 14 pertussis-related deaths in the U.S. so far in 2012, making this the worst pertussis year in more than a decade.
The majority of deaths occurred among infants younger than 3 months of age.
Typically, infants are exposed to pertussis by caregivers or older siblings who are either unvaccinated or whose vaccine-triggered immunity has waned over time.
Pertussis is Vaccine-Preventable
The best way to prevent pertussis among infants, children, teens, and adults is to get vaccinated. Also, keep infants and other people at high risk for pertussis complications away from infected people.
In the United States, the recommended pertussis vaccine for infants and children is called DTaP. This is a combination vaccine that protects against three diseases: diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis.
The childhood whooping cough vaccine (DTaP) protects most children for at least five years. Vaccine protection for these three diseases fades with time.
Before 2005, the only booster available contained protection against tetanus and diphtheria (called Td), and was recommended for teens and adults every 10 years. Today there is a booster for preteens, teens and adults that contains protection against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (Tdap).
The easiest thing for adults to do is to get Tdap instead of their next regular tetanus booster. The dose of Tdap can be given earlier than the 10-year mark, so it is a good idea for adults to talk to a health care provider about what is best for their specific situation.
Do you still have questions? Call your local health department office or physician to check your immunization status and schedule a vaccination appointment.
The Western U.P. Health Department provides vaccinations from its offices in Hancock, L'Anse, Ontonagon and Bessemer. The agency website is wuphd.org.
Editor's note: Ray Sharp is the community planning and preparedness manager at the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department.