Washtenaw Co. sees sharp increase in whooping cough cases

Child coughing into her elbow at the doctor's office

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Washtenaw County is seeing a sharp increase in cases of pertussis, or whooping cough, compared to the previous three years, with 21 cases in 2024, the local health department announced Thursday.

For 10 years before the COVID-19 pandemic, the county saw between 50-100 cases of the bacterial disease each year. Levels dropped lower than usual across the country for the last few years but are returning to pre-pandemic levels, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There have been more than three times as many pertussis cases to date in 2024 than there were by the same point in 2023, according to the CDC.

“Pertussis, unfortunately, seems to be returning,” said Laura Bauman, Washtenaw County Health Department epidemiology program manager, in a news release. “It’s important for us to identify and treat cases as soon as possible because illness from pertussis can be serious, especially for infants.”

The Washtenaw cases have been in teens and young adults and there have been no hospitalizations, the release said. The whooping cough vaccine is included in the DTap (diphtheria, tetanus and acellular pertussis) series of four shots recommended for infants and small children between the ages of 2 and 18 months. Children are given a booster between 4 and 6 years old, according to the health department.

A supply of the Tdap vaccine, which includes inoculations for tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis, at the North Oakland Health Center, in Pontiac, August 15, 2023.
The vaccine is also in Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria and acellular pertussis), an immunization meant for teens and adults starting at 11-12 years old, with boosters every 10 years and during pregnancy.

Most cases in Washtenaw County received the vaccine, but protection can wane after two years. Teens and young adults are especially susceptible to illness and contributing to outbreaks, the release said.

Pertussis is highly contagious and spread by the Bordetella pertussis bacteria in droplets when people cough, sneeze or talk, according to the health department. It is a respiratory disease that causes coughing fits. Infected people may make a “whoop” sound trying to breathe after coughing, hence the term whooping cough.

Early symptoms including a low fever, runny nose, sneezing and occasional cough are similar to a cold. The cough tends to become more severe after a couple of weeks and an infected person’s lips and nails can turn blue during coughing bouts due to lack of oxygen, according to the health department. People sometimes vomit during severe coughing episodes, which can last for a month or more.

Infected people can feel and appear healthy between coughing bouts, although teens and adults with pertussis complications may have difficulty sleeping, and develop pneumonia and rib fractures, the health department said. Complications for infants include pneumonia, convulsions and brain damage, although those are rare. The infection is most fatal in infants less than 3 months old, according to the news release.

The Washtenaw County Health Department asked anyone who may have been exposed to pertussis or experiencing symptoms to contact their health care provider or the department at (734) 544-6700. Antibiotics are the recommended treatment, and infected people should avoid contact with others for at least five days of treatment.

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