Whooping Cough on the Rise
FAIRBANKS — Pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough, is on the rise nationwide and Alaska is no exception.
According to the epidemiology page in the Health and Social Services section of the state website, 55 cases of the disease have been documented so far this year, more than double the 24 cases reported in 2011. While that number might seem high, public health officials say there’s no cause for panic.
“The numbers are so small that the section of epidemiology is not ready to say ‘be alarmed,’ but I know that we’d like to communicate to wash hands, stay home if you’re sick and get the T-dap vaccination,” said Nancy Davidian, public health nurse at the Fairbanks Regional Public Health Center.
T-dap refers to the Tetanus-Diphtheria-Pertussis vaccine, which health officials recommend for all children. Adolescents and adults should receive boosters.
The Alaska numbers don’t necessarily reflect the actual number of infections statewide, said Louisa Castrodale, one of the epidemiologists at the state.
“We only have numbers for people who have gone in, been swabbed and tested positive, and it’s definitely the tip of the iceberg because not everybody who is sick will go in and get tested,” Castrodale said.
Pertussis is caused by a bacteria that affects the lungs. It is especially dangerous to babies and small children and can be fatal. Of infants younger than 1 who get pertussis, 57 percent must be hospitalized, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.
Pertussis occurs in three stages, the first of which is the catarrhal stage. An infected person in this early stage exhibits symptoms such as a runny nose, a mild cough and a low-grade fever and is highly contagious. These symptoms often are mistaken for the common cold, and diagnosis usually does not occur until more serious symptoms set in about two weeks into the infection.
The second, “paroxysmal” stage, usually lasts from the second to the eighth week of infection and is characterized by severe coughing fits that empty the lungs of air, causing a characteristic whooping sound as the afflicted person sucks air back into his or her lungs. The paroxysms can cause broken ribs, loss of consciousness, vomiting and severe exhaustion. In babies and small children, these coughing fits can cause bleeding behind the eyes and in the brain. This stage can last up to 10 weeks, and in China pertussis is called “the 100-day cough.”
The convalescent stage usually occurs from the eighth to the 12th week of infection and recovery is gradual. The cough slowly lessens but fits still can occur. At this stage, the infected person is susceptible to other respiratory infections.
According to the CDC website, more than 17,000 cases of pertussis were reported nationwide through July 12 this year, and nine pertussis-related deaths were reported during that same time period. The majority of deaths occur among infants younger than 3 months, and the incident rate in that age group exceeds that of all other age groups. Rates also are increased in adolescents 13 and 14 years old.
As of July 5, 37 states have reported increases in whooping cough cases compared with the same time period in 2011, according to the CDC.
Contact Fairbanks Daily News-Miner staff writer Dorothy Chomicz at 907-459-7590.