A surge of whooping cough cases in the Kootenay Boundary has Interior Health (IH) reminding parents to keep their child’s immunizations up-to-date.
There’s been 14 confirmed diagnoses of the illness in the region, adding to 34 cases throughout IH facilities since January.
The disease is a highly contagious infection of the respiratory system that can result in prolonged, sometimes life-threatening, illness in infants and young children.
The first symptoms of whooping cough are similar to those of a common cold, and may include runny nose, sneezing, mild fever and a low-grade cough.
After one to two weeks, the dry, irritating cough evolves into severe coughing spells that can last for more than a minute.
The child can cough to the point of breathlessness, and inhalations of air post-cough can produce the tell-tale whooping sound.
Caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis, whooping cough (also referred to as pertussis) is preventable by immunization that begins at two months of age. Intramuscular injections are repeated three more times until the child is 18 months, again at four to six years, then as a booster in Grade 9.
Those afflicted require treatment with the use of prescribed medication to lessen the infectious period from two to three weeks to as little as five days, says IH Medical Health Officer, Dr. Kamran Golmohammadi.
“I have to emphasize that this is a completely preventable infectious illness and it has serious implications, especially in small children and infants less than 12 months old,” he explained.
Complications can include pneumonia and in rare instances encephalitis, which is an inflammation of the brain that can be fatal in the very young.
“We are strongly advising all parents to ensure their children are immunized, so they are not at risk,” said Golmohammadi . “The pertussis vaccine is very safe and effective in preventing the spread of this disease.”
The vaccine, referred to as “DPT,” covers immunization against pertussis as well as diphtheria and tetanus.
Diagnosis is made by swabbing the throat or nose, and if the test comes back positive for the pertussis bacteria, treatment includes a full course of antibiotics.
Science has yet to prove why the endemic disease peaks across Canada often in the summer and every three to five years, says Dr. Golmohammadi.
“It is unclear why this cyclic pattern occurs,” he said. “People can assume different theories such as, for example, children are exposed to their cohorts who are immunized, during the school months. (In the summer) they may be exposed to a wider group of people in different age groups, which are less protected.”
Over time immunity wanes, so more interaction with the public might potentially introduce children to people who have the bacteria.
“The group we are most concerned with are children less than 12 months, especially those who have no immunity or incomplete immunity.”
To produce an outbreak, two factors are required.
First, a person must be infected with pertussis. Through droplet contact, such as sneezing or coughing, the disease, which only survives in the human respiratory system, spreads to another person who is also not immunized or fully immune.
“We know to have in increase in the number of cases or actually have a new case, those two major components need to happen at the same time,” Golmohammadi explained.
Stopping the spread falls to the vaccinated community (also known as herd immunity) because when exposed to the infection, they will not become ill.
“So when you have a person with the infection, who is traveling or visiting from other countries, for example, high protection of immunity among community members (means) they will not become ill when they are exposed,” he added. “And they will not become a source of infection. So when that person leaves or gets well, the infection is not spread, and there won’t be more cases in the community.”
Parents are recommended to review their children’s immunization record and update vaccines before the new school year starts.
For more information, visit immunizebc.ca or contact Trail Public Health at 250.364.6219.