I'm not alone. At least half a dozen parents in my social circle, knowing I report on health issues, have asked if they should be concerned about their children's hacks and wheezes. It's never turned out to be more than a common cold. But we're right to be vigilant.
California is in the midst of a whooping cough epidemic, and several other states have reported outbreaks of the highly contagious upper respiratory illness also known as pertussis.
Whooping cough often is missed or wrongly diagnosed. At first, the illness appears to be just any other cold. Later, when the bacteria have seriously damaged the upper respiratory system and caused swelling that can take weeks to heal--the 100-day cough is another nickname for the illness--doctors might recognize or diagnose whooping cough with tests, but the person likely already has spread the bacteria to someone else.
Although symptoms usually develop within a week to 10 days of exposure, the illness can take as long as six weeks to present itself.
Health officials first noted a significant increase in whooping cough cases in California in March. If the rates from the first half of the year continue, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predict the state will have its highest annual rate of pertussis since 1963.
In the first six months of 2010, more than 1,300 cases were reported--a 418 percent increase over the same period in 2009. That works out to about 3.4 cases for every 100,000 people, according to the CDC.
If whooping cough seems like a disease straight out of a historical novel, you're right. Pertussis was a dangerous, killing childhood illness in the 1920s and '30s when CDC records show the annual death toll reach as high as 9,000 before a vaccine was introduced in the 1940s.
For forty years, whooping cough cases decreased, but since the 1980s, the illness has reemerged in cycles. Roughly every three to five years, according to the CDC, pertussis cases have spiked despite a steady vaccination rate. The last peak was in 2005.
In the New York Times, epidemiologists said waning immunity from the pertussis vaccine--typically given in through combination dTap vaccine--could be causing the surges. Even people who have been given all five doses of vaccine against the pertussis bacteria can catch the illness. They usually have mild, short cases, but still can spread the bacteria.
And that means whooping cough, even in 2010, is a dangerous illness for the most vulnerable children. Babies younger than six months--too young to be fully immunized against the highly contagious illness--made up 89 percent of California's cases. Less than 20 percent of the people who reported having whooping cough were hospitalized, however, more than half of those severe cases were in infants younger than 3 months.
Still, health officials say vaccination is the best protection against whooping cough--that and plain, old good hygiene. Cover coughs and sneezes, avoid people who are ill, wash your hands frequently and thoroughly.
And if a cough lasts more than a week, get to a doctor. Antibiotics can kill off the bacteria--stopping contagion--even if the cough persists.
What is whooping cough?Known as pertussis, the highly contagious bacterial illness attacks the upper respiratory system and cause swelling that can take weeks to heal. A persistent cough is the tell-tale symptom, though in the first one to two weeks of illness, whooping cough can seem like a common cold.
|Who is most at risk?
Infants and young children who have not received full immunization against the pertussis, as well as pregnant women and other people who have compromised immune systems.
|What is the vaccine?
The pertussis vaccine usually is given in the combination dTap vaccine--it's the "p"--that is recommended to be given when kids are 2, 4 and 6 months old, between 15 and 18 months old, and finally when they enter school.
|What other prevention is there?
|What if I think my child has whooping cough?
Check with your doctor. Tests, such as a nasal swab, can detect the illness.