County reports pertussis on the rise

Vaccines can help stop spread; infants risk complications

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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As a back-to-school reminder to stay current with immunizations — and to cough into the crook of your elbow — Clark County’s public health officer said Friday that the health department has been investigating a number of pertussis cases.

Infants are at high risk for serious complications, including pneumonia, from pertussis, said Dr. Alan Melnick.

Since July, the health department has investigated 38 cases. Of those, 25 are confirmed cases, five are probable cases and eight are suspect cases.

Seven of the cases are children younger than 2, and three of those cases are infants, Melnick said.

Last year, between July 1 and Sept. 30, the county had 12 total cases.

In 2008, between July 1 and Sept. 30, the county had nine total cases.

Melnick said there are mini-clusters of cases throughout the county.

“We’re not talking about any county-wide outbreak or anything,” he said.

He said the number of reported cases could be on the rise simply because doctors are testing for pertussis more often.

“If you don’t test for it, that person might have pertussis but it doesn’t ever get reported,” Melnick said.

Any positive test must be reported to the county health department.

Whooping cough

Also known as whooping cough, pertussis is a highly contagious bacterial disease that is spread through the air by coughing, Melnick said. He said it usually starts with cold-like symptoms and a cough that worsens over two weeks. Coughing fits may be followed by a whooping noise or vomiting. People find it difficult to catch their breath, Melnick said, and can cough so hard they fracture a rib.

Cough medicines don’t help, he said.

A “probable” case means the symptoms meet the clinical definition but the illness has not been confirmed by a lab test (testing involves taking specimens from the nose and throat) and isn’t linked to another case, Melnick said.

A “suspect” case means a patient has had a positive lab test but can’t confirm that the coughing has lasted at least two weeks.

Pertussis vaccines (DTaP) are available for infants; a pertussis booster shot is recommended for people ages 11 to 64, Melnick said.

Of the reported cases this year, six people did not know whether they had ever received a pertussis vaccine, nine people had never received one, 13 were current with their vaccinations and 10 people were under-immunized, meaning they received a dose as an infant but never followed up with a booster shot.

“No vaccine is perfect, but they certainly are protective,” Melnick said.

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.