In Our View: Epidemic Hits State

Whooping cough outbreak is serious; take precautions, talk to your doctor

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Here are just a few statistical reasons why Clark County residents should protect themselves against what could become the state’s worst whooping cough epidemic since 1942:Through Tuesday, 54 cases of pertussis -- or whooping cough -- had been confirmed in Clark County this year, putting us on course for more than 200 this year. Through all of last year, there were only 94 cases locally.

Statewide, 640 cases have been reported this year, compared with 94 cases in the first quarter of last year. This prompted state Secretary of Health Mary Selecky on Tuesday to declare a statewide whooping cough epidemic.

Cases have been reported in 23 of the state’s 39 counties.

The incident rate statewide is 9.5 cases per 100,000 residents, about the same as in Clark County, with 9.6. However, neighboring Cowlitz County is among the highest in the state with 26 cases per 100,000 residents.

Whooping cough epidemics typically occur every 3-5 years. The last one in our state was in 2005. Do the math.

Selecky says these known cases are “probably just the tip of the iceberg. We really know in public health that (pertussis) is under-reported.” Only 10-12 percent of the cases are being reported, health officials believe, because adults often are not sick enough to receive medical care. However, the disease is highly communicable and especially dangerous for infants, who can advance from whooping cough to pneumonia or even brain inflammation.

Those are the distressing numbers, but there are three troubling philosophical realities as well.

First, whooping cough is easily preventable through vaccine.

Second, many misinformed parents choose not to have their children vaccinated despite numerous studies showing the practicality, the common-sense health need and the relative safety of doing so.

Third, many adults elect not to be vaccinated because pertussis doesn’t affect them as seriously as it does children. Only about 10 percent of adults are believed to be vaccinated, health officials say. That reflects an alarmingly inconsiderate attitude, because an adult could be just one cough or sneeze away from transmitting pertussis to a nearby child.

Here are recommendations you need to know and precautions we recommend you take after, of course, consulting your family physician:

Children should receive five doses of the diphtheria, tetanus and acellular pertussis vaccine (DTaP) before age 7.

Pregnant women must be especially vigilant because pertussis can be transmitted to the fetus, most commonly in the third trimester.

Adolescents and adults should receive a tetanus, diphtheria and acellular pertussis booster (Tdap) every 10 years. If you can’t remember your last one, seek and follow your doctor’s advice.

Washingtonians are too advanced -- in terms of public health -- to allow this whooping cough epidemic to become worse. Despite the achievements of modern science, Selecky said “this year’s peak is higher than anything we’ve ever seen.”

If you’re an adult, you could experience cold-like symptoms and persistent cough for several weeks. But for the child you could infect at home, in the neighborhood or on your next visit to a public place, the consequences could be dramatically worse.

Our best advice: Talk to your physician about whooping cough.