Whooping Cough Cases On The Rise

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture

Health officials in Western North Carolina are treating a large number of patients with whooping cough (also called pertussis). In Jackson County alone, nine lab confirmed cases have been reported since early June. Swain County has had five cases, Cleveland County has had four, and Cherokee County has had two. A majority of the patients were under two years of age. No deaths due to whooping cough have been reported.

“We’ve seen an unusually large number of cases over a short period of time,” said Dr. Leah Devlin, State Health Director. “Many of the patients suffering from whooping cough are infants. Unfortunately, infants are at highest risk for developing complications from whooping cough.”

Whooping cough is an acute respiratory infection spread by coughing and sneezing. Symptoms are similar to the common cold and include runny nose, sneezing, low grade fever and cough. The cough often becomes worse after seven or more days with one or more of the following symptoms:

* Sudden, uncontrollable fits or spells of coughing.

* A “whoop” which is a high pitched noise heard when breathing in and after a cough spasm.

* Apnea (not breathing).

* Gagging or vomiting after the coughing spells.

Complications of whooping cough include bacterial pneumonia, rib fractures and even death. Anyone who suspects they have whooping cough should seek medical treatment with their primary care physician or at their local health department.


Fortunately, a vaccine is available to prevent whooping cough. The vaccine is contained in two different combination products both of which protect against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough). DTaP is the vaccine product given to infants and children up to seven years of age. Tdap is the vaccine product given to adolescents and adults.

“It is especially important that adults in close contact with infants receive the Tdap vaccine,” said Beth Rowe-West, RN, BSN, head of the Immunization Branch. “Parents, grandparents and caregivers of infants should be vaccinated so the infant is not exposed to the disease.”

Infants get their first dose of DTaP at two months of age, but do not complete their primary series of DTaP vaccine until they are six months of age. They also get a booster dose at about a year of age and another before entering school. They are vulnerable until they receive all the recommended doses of vaccine.

Children in our state are required by North Carolina law to receive five doses of the DTaP vaccine before entering kindergarten. However, it is not uncommon for whooping cough to develop as children age and their immunity to the disease wanes. For that reason, school entry requirements were changed this year to address the increase in whooping cough cases seen in our state. These rule changes will go into effect beginning with the 2008-09 school year.

The new rule states that a booster dose of Tdap vaccine is required for the following individuals:

* All students attending public school who are entering the 6th grade on or after August 1, 2008, if five years or more have passed since the last dose of tetanus/diphtheria toxoid.

* All students not attending public schools (i.e., private, home-school, non-traditional schools) who are 12 years of age on or after August 1, 2008, if five years or more have passed since the last dose of tetanus/diphtheria toxoid.

* Individuals enrolling in college or university for the first time on or after July 1, 2008, if a tetanus/diphtheria toxoid or tetanus/diphtheria/pertussis vaccine has not been administered within the past 10 years.

The best way to fight whooping cough and prevent the potentially tragic consequences of the disease is to get immunized. Individuals should contact their doctors or local health departments to schedule an appointment for vaccination.