Pediatricians urge vaccines for whooping cough

Two recently reported cases in Juneau do not signify an epidemic

Posted: Wednesday, August 06, 2008

A few recent cases of pertussis in Juneau prompted two local pediatricians to recommend more people get vaccinated for the disease more commonly known as whopping cough.

"If children aren't immunized, parents should think seriously about immunizing them. Whooping cough can be life-threatening for babies," said Dr. Marna Schwartz, a pediatrician at SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium.

Two cases of pertussis were recently reported in Juneau, according to Kate Slotnick, nurse manager at the Juneau Public Health Center. One case involved an infant who was flown to Seattle for treatment, and the other was a toddler-aged child, she said.

It is not an epidemic situation, said Dr. George Brown, a pediatrician with Glacier Pediatrics and a member of the Bartlett Regional Hospital Medical Staff. But the occurrences prompted him to suggest that more adults and children get vaccinated.

Whooping cough is a bacterial disease. The main symptom is a bad cough that may seem like bronchitis with excessive mucus and spasms of coughing that are hard to stop.

"It is so risky for infants because they can't clear their secretions as well (as adults), and they get worn out from the repeated coughing," Brown said.

The disease is treated with antibiotics.

The vaccine for many years was only available for children up to 6 years old.

A variation became available in 2005 for older children and adults up to 64 years old. People over 64 can't receive the vaccine.

"Because whooping cough is always around, this new vaccine is going to decrease the reservoir of infection as more adolescents and adults become immune," Brown said.

The adult form of the vaccination was developed after studies found that pertussis usually is spread from a parent to a child, Slotnick said.

There were nearly 26,000 cases of whooping cough reported in the U.S. in 2004, but many go unreported because symptoms can mirror a bad cold, Brown said.

Ninety-one cases were reported in Alaska in 2005.

Whooping cough is not very contagious, nor does it spread like the flu, Brown said. It is primarily spread within the family, he added

"A lot of people have it and never know because they think they have a bad cold and have a cough that lasts longer than usual," he said.

Vaccinations are available through family doctors and at Juneau Public Health on a sliding-fee scale.

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