Healthier Together: Whooping cough on the rise in the U.S.

Pediatrician with baby

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For the last month, we’ve been looking at cases of whooping cough or pertussis, which have been on the rise in the US and across the world.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are nearly three times as many cases—and counting—in the US this year compared to last year.

KIRO 7′s Ranji Sinha spoke to an infectious disease expert at Seattle Children’s Hospital to get their perspective and learned the trend applies to Washington state.

Dr. Danielle Zerr works at Seattle Children’s Hospital and is the Division Chief of Pediatric Infectious Disease.

She says there has been a steady stream of cases this year.

“We see about 0 (to) 4, or have been seeing 0 (to) 4 cases each week, for the last few months, so we haven’t as of yet seen an increase in cases,” Dr. Zerr said.

For Dr. Zerr, holding at the baseline for whooping cough cases (0-4/week) in our region is a good sign, but she says that could change so familles need to take notice.

“I think it’s important to understand that early in the form of the illness, pertussis can look like the common cold, but then as the illness progresses, the cough becomes a very significant feature,” Dr. Zerr said.

Pertussis or whooping cough can show up as a long series of coughs without inhaling in between.

It creates breathing problems, especially in children who could gag or throw up as they cough.

Adults can also have similar problems if they contract pertussis, and the American Lung Association says it can lead to loss of bladder control and rib fractures.

When someone with pertussis is able to breathe in, it can create a high-pitched sound, the so-called ‘whoop’ of whooping cough.

Dr. Zerr says people can often miss the signs early on.

“If you knew you were exposed and developed the signs of the common cold, that will be important to have checked out,” Dr. Zerr said.

Cases are spiking across the US; the CDC says outbreaks have been declared in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and nearby Oregon.

In late May, Snohomish County health officials reported a rise in cases with ten confirmed or probable cases in county residents, in the three years earlier health officials say there were no more than 3 cases in the county.

According to the Washington State Department of Health, more than 200 cases had been reported statewide as of mid-May, compared to 24 last year.

Dr. Zerr says she is tracking the other cases to see the general trends.

“Hearing about other places in our region that are seeing more cases does make me worry that we will see more cases also,” Dr. Zerr said.

She also stresses people who are exposed can be treated, and the highly effective TDAP vaccine is out there.

“It can spread between anyone, but it’s the young children who have the most significant illness, especially infants four months of age. That is the age group where many of the complications happen,” Dr. Zerr said.

Complications can include severe respiratory distress, pneumonia, and even seizures for children and others.

In some cases, it can prove to be deadly, especially for those who have underlying medical conditions not related to pertussis.

Dr. Zerr says treatment with antibiotics can reduce the impact of whooping cough if you’ve been exposed.

She also suspects lower vaccine rates could be fueling some cases.

“It’s one of the infections that’s relatively contagious. It’s spread through respiratory droplets, so being within about three feet of a person who has pertussis, you’re at risk,” Dr. Zerr said.

She says the simple decision to get vaccinated is a move to protect the most vulnerable.

“It’s the young infants who are most at risk. That’s that age group, especially less than four months of age. We really want to try to protect those babies and that’s where that strategy of vaccinating everyone around them comes in,” Dr. Zerr said.

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