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An outbreak of whooping cough in Northern Michigan has health officials reminding parents to get their children vaccinated.
Six cases of pertussis illness, also known as whooping cough, were identified last week in children under the age of 4 in Presque Isle County, according to the District 4 Health Department.
The infected children had interacted with each other. They were given antibiotics and, luckily, none required hospital care. However, the highly infectious bacterial infection can lead to severe illness, particularly in young children. About one-third of babies under the age of 1 who contract whooping cough need hospital care, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“This is a good reminder that this is a vaccine-preventable disease,” said Dr. Joshua Meyerson, medical director for the health department serving Alpena, Cheboygan, Montmorency, and Presque Isle counties in the northern Lower Peninsula. “It hasn’t gone away; it’s still there and the best thing to protect those young infants is to ensure everyone around them is vaccinated.”
Whooping cough often starts like a common cold with a runny nose or congestion, sneezing and sometimes a mild cough or fever. Unlike the typical cold, it can develop into a series of coughing fits that can leave people gasping for air.
Some infected children won’t develop a cough. Instead, they may have life-threatening pauses in their breathing as they struggle for air. They may also develop pneumonia, which in itself can be severe for young children.
Because some people will have mild symptoms, they may unknowingly spread the bacteria to young children, who can have a more severe infection. That’s why health officials say getting vaccinated is important.
The DTaP immunization recommended to children younger than 7 years old and starting at 2 months old, includes a vaccine against whooping cough as well as against tetanus and diphtheria. Similarly, the Tdap shot for older children, teens and adults, also offers protection against severe illness from whooping cough. The CDC recommends pregnant women receive the immunization when they are 27 to 36 weeks pregnant because newborns are not yet eligible for the vaccine and this protects babies early in life.
Michigan has had cycles of higher pertussis activity every three to five years, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. There were about 1,500 cases reported in 2010, and another 1,400 cases in 2014.
Nationally, the U.S. reported more than 48,000 cases in 2012. Since then, there have usually between 15,000 and 33,000 cases reported annually.
Meyerson said it’s too early to know if this respiratory illness season will be a bad year for whooping cough, but he said residents should take precautions to limit potential spread.
In addition to the vaccine, health officials recommend frequent hand washing, covering your nose and mouth when coughing, staying home and away from others when sick – even just a cough – and contact health care providers when experiencing prolonged or severe cough.
“We know unfortunately that pertussis is out there and it survives in the community,” Meyerson said. “There’s always risk for it, but when you see something like this (outbreak), you know there may be increased circulation. It’s important for people to know and for doctors to have a higher index of suspicion and test for it.”