Working to Stop Spread of Contagious Disease

Armen Hareyan's picture

The incidence of a highly contagious disease has been on the rise across the country for the past two decades. The same has been true for Boulder County, where incidence rates have been 4 to 15 times the national rate.

This disease, pertussis (or whooping cough), poses one of the most significant communicable disease threats in Boulder County. A median of 83 cases have been reported in Boulder County every year throughout the last decade, with 176 cases recorded in 2004. Since 1996, Boulder County has accounted for seven to 37 percent of the state's pertussis cases each year, while only representing 6.1 percent of Colorado's total population.

Pertussis is a highly contagious disease that is spread through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It starts like a common cold without the fever, but symptoms get worse. The cough progresses to paroxysms, or "fits" of coughing, followed by a high-pitched "whoop" as the person tries to catch their breath. Many people will gag or vomit following a fit of coughing. The cough can last up to 100 days.

People with pertussis usually become ill 7-10 days after being exposed to someone with the disease; however, incubation can last up to 21 days.

The majority of pertussis cases occur in people 10 years of age and older, most likely due to diminished immunity, thus making adolescents one of the most vulnerable age groups. Boulder County pertussis data from 1999 through 2006 reveals that 52 percent of cases reported were among individuals 10 through 19 years old.


"Most concerning, though, is that infected adolescents and adults may be the primary carriers of the disease to infants and other younger children, where the illness is much more serious, even life threatening," said Heath Harmon, Boulder County Public Health Communicable Disease Division manager.

In infants and young children, especially those who have not had four doses of diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTaP) vaccine, pertussis may be very severe, resulting in hospitalization, seizures, long-term neurological problems, and even death.

"The high incidence of pertussis in Boulder County must be addressed by reducing the number of people susceptible to the disease. This can be done by vaccinating adolescents and young adults," said Linda Wilson, a Boulder County Public Health epidemiologist. This is now possible through the use of a new combination vaccine called Tdap, which can be given to children 10 years and older and adults younger than 65, and which provides protection against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis.

In an attempt to reverse the trend of pertussis incidence, Boulder County Public Health (BCPH) is launching the "Keep Pertussis Out" educational campaign this month aimed at parents of Boulder County adolescents and teens. The goal is to encourage all parents to get their 10-19 year-old children vaccinated with the new pertussis booster (Tdap).

"After speaking with many parents across the county, it was clear that we needed to provide the community with more information about the disease," said Chana Goussetis, Boulder County Public Health communications specialist. "As parents, it is often difficult to know what the best option is - we all want the best for our children. We hope this information will help parents understand that the best decision is to have their children vaccinated against this disease."

The Tdap vaccine is available at most physician offices and community health centers as well as Boulder County Public Health immunization clinic.