Juneau becomes a 'hot spot' for whooping cough

Vaccination effort aims to stem the rise in pertussis cases

Posted: Thursday, December 11, 2008

Doctors in Juneau are struggling to deal with a growing number of whooping cough cases and are trying to stem the growth with new vaccination efforts.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

The respiratory disease, formally called pertussis, can be particularly dangerous to some vulnerable people, including babies and the elderly, said Dr. Joy Neyhart of Rainforest Pediatric Care.

"For vulnerable infants, this can be a death sentence," Neyhart said.

Since July 1, Juneau has seen 80 cases, compared to one last year. That makes Juneau one of the state's whooping cough hot spots, along with Homer, said Dr. Beth Funk, state epidemiologist. Anchorage and the Mat-Su also have had a number of cases, she said.

It is not clear how many cases Juneau has actually had because only those cases confirmed with lab tests are counted, Funk said.

The infection begins with a runny nose, sneezing, low-grade fever and a mild cough that gradually becomes more severe and can last up to six weeks.

"In teenagers and adults, it can look a lot more like a cold. It may last longer, but they might not even think of pertussis and get a test," Funk said.

Three Juneau children with pertussis, including one of Neyhart's patients, have been medevaced to Anchorage, she said. All three are expected to recover.

The disease once was a major cause of childhood mortality and remains dangerous, Funk said.

"Without appropriate treatment and support, they'll die, which is why this is such a serious illness," Neyhart said.

Local public health authorities have responded to the persistently high number of cases with a stepped up vaccination effort, said Kate Slotnick, a public health nurse in Juneau.

Next week, Juneau middle schools will offer free Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis) shots during vaccination clinics. Students, staff and parents can all get the vaccinations at the schools.

The state is making the vaccinations available for free in an effort to stem the spread of the disease, Funk said.

Whooping cough is unusually difficult to combat because those most at risk often can't be vaccinated.

For those under age 7 there is a vaccine, and there is also a vaccine for those from 10 to 65, Funk said. Those between 7 and 10 cannot be vaccinated, she added.

Targeting middle schoolers to adults is intended to reduce the prevalence of pertussis in the community and to protect the most vulnerable, Slotnick said.

Outbreaks of pertussis have been confirmed only in some schools, but there are indications that it is much more widespread, Funk said.

"A number of other schools have had lots of children with cough illnesses who may not have been tested for pertussis, but it makes us think it may be circulating in the schools," she said.

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