California’s Department of Health has officially labeled the high number of whooping cough, or “Pertussis” cases in California as epidemic. The highly infectious disease has been especially harsh on young children, aged four months or younger, and has already resulted in the deaths of two infants. Young children are especially at risk for the infection and according to Dr. Ron Chapman, director of the California Department of Health, preventing the disease and “death in infants” is of the “highest priority.”
In the first six months of 2014, there have been more than 3,400 cases of whooping cough in California – the highest number of cases since 2010. In fact, in just the first two weeks of June, over 800 new cases of the bacterial infection have occurred with the highest rates in the San Francisco Bay Area counties of Sonoma, Napa and Marin.
Authorities are urging women who are pregnant to be vaccinated against the respiratory illness. Mothers with infants are being strongly urged to have their child, or children, vaccinated as well. According to Deputy Director of the California Department of Public Health, Dr. Gil Chavez, it is very important to vaccinate young children, especially infants because they are the ones at most risk for “severe disease and death.” In addition, adults who commonly come in close contact with children, such as teachers, physicians or caregivers are recommended to seek the protection that a vaccination can provide, as they are more likely to be exposed to the infection.
Whooping cough is spread via the wet emissions from a sneeze or cough that produce bacteria laden “droplets” that then spread through the air. When a nearby person inhales, they may inhale these droplets and become a potential host for the disease. The bacteria take up residence in the lungs by attaching to the cilia, or tiny hairs that line the lungs which then causes inflammation – the beginning of the cough cycle.
The symptoms of whooping cough may seem very mild at first, much like those of the common cold and include sneezing, coughing and a runny nose. Some people may experience a low-grade fever and diarrhea. However, after the first week, the respiratory symptoms become much more severe and for some with the infection, the cough becomes more of a “coughing spell” that ends up with the person making a “whooping” sound as they struggle for air. This symptom is what led to the common name for pertussis – as in “whooping cough.”
According to WebMD, it is because the cough does not produce any mucus that the episode can last for “up to one minute” and cause the infected person’s face to turn “red or purple.” Not all suffering with the disease will have the whooping symptom and for adults the respiratory symptoms may simply present as a persistent cough. For infants, rather than “whooping” they may just “gasp for air” as they struggle to breath. Some may even vomit and children with whooping cough that are under the age of 18 months must be carefully monitored as they may actually stop breathing.
The medical treatment for whooping cough includes antibiotics but the trend has been that most infected patients seek medical care after it is too late for the antibiotics to be effective. Over the counter medications are ineffective in treating the symptoms. Thus, prevention with vaccinations is the key to stopping the spread of this highly infectious bacterial disease, which is now affecting California in epidemic proportions and has put the state’s children at particularly high risk for illness.
By Alana Marie Burke