Governor makes emergency funds available to combat pertussis epidemic

Published on Wed, May 9, 2012 by Jeremy Schwartz

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Governor Chris Gregoire has released state emergency funds meant to prevent more cases of pertussis, also called whooping cough, in Washington state.

Last week Gregoire made $90,000 in emergency funds available to pay for additional vaccinations across the state. The $90,000 is in addition to $210,000 in state and federal funds earmarked for pertussis vaccinations for adults who are uninsured or underinsured.

The move comes as cases of pertussis have skyrocketed this year compared to the same time last year. According to state department of health disease investigators, 1,132 cases of pertussis have been reported in Washington as of April 28; an 111 percent increase over the 117 cases during the same time period in 2011. There were 965 cases in 2011, and health officials say there will likely be 3,000 cases of pertussis by the end of 2012.

To date, 101 probable and confirmed cases of whooping cough have been reported in Whatcom County, compared to 11 cases during the same period of 2011. According to state department of health figures, Whatcom County has 48.6 cases per 100,000 people, the fifth highest in the state. The highest is Skagit County with 226.3 cases per 100,000 people.

“The northern Puget Sound area is particularly hard hit,” said Greg Stern, M.D., Whatcom County health officer.

Pertussis is a highly contagious upper respiratory bacterial infection that causes swelling and increased mucus production in a person’s airways, Stern explained. Early symptoms can resemble a cold, though cases of pertussis most often induce a high pitched, whooping cough from which the disease got its name.

Pertussis can often be treated with antibiotics and seldom has serious consequences in adults. However, infants are particularly susceptible to life-threatening complications of the disease due to their smaller airways and lungs, Stern explained. So far this year, three infants in Whatcom County have been hospitalized after contracting the disease.

The pertussis vaccine can be given to infants at six weeks of age at the earliest, though the vaccination process will not make infants fully immune until they are about six months old, Stern explained. An adult or teenager with even a minor case of the disease can pass it on to an infant through direct contact.

 “Even if it’s not severe, it can still be passed on,” Stern said.

To combat this, the Whatcom County Health Department is encouraging all adults, especially those who come into regular contact with infants or children, to get vaccinated. Stern is also recommending pregnant women get vaccinated at about 20 weeks.

With children at an elevated risk, registered nurses at the Blaine school district are taking special care to educate staff and parents about the importance of vaccinating against pertussis. Margaret Gibson, one of the school district’s two registered nurses, said they are in the process of contacting parents who, for one reason or another, have fallen behind on their child’s required immunizations.

 “We do this to protect the babies,” Gibson said.

Gibson said Blaine school district has had no reported cases of pertussis during the recent epidemic. If a child were suspected to have the disease, his or her doctor would be the one to confirm it. Gibson said the school nurse would, however, call the parents of a child with a suspected case of pertussis and have the child picked up from school.

Gibson said strong immunity within a community is one of the best ways to protect infants who are not yet able to receive vaccinations. The more people vaccinated within a given area, the less chance the disease has to infect one or two people and spread.

Given that, Gibson said she tries to start conversations about the importance of community immunity with parents who have filed for vaccine exemptions for their children. By Washington state law, parents can get vaccine exemptions for their children for medical or philosophical reasons if they have a note from their doctor saying they have been told the pros and cons of vaccines.

Gibson said 7 percent of students in the Blaine school district are exempt from vaccinations, down from 11 percent over the past few years. Most of the exempt children are in middle or high school, and Gibson said she has been working to encourage vaccinations for children just starting school.

“The school nurses hope the families who have chosen to be exempt will use this as an opportunity to rethink their decision,” Gibson said.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Washington state leads the nation in vaccination exemptions, with 6.2 percent of children enrolled in kindergarten having a reported exemption. The next closest state to Washington was Virginia Vermont with 5.8 percent.

Of Washington’s 5,015 vaccine exemptions in the 2009/2010 school year, 4,684, or just more than 90 percent, were for philosophical reasons.

Vaccination exemption rates in Whatcom County have just about doubled since 1997, according to data from the state department of health. In the 1997-98 school year, 4.8 percent of children enrolled in K-12 had received exemptions from vaccinations. By the 2010/2011 school year, that figure had almost doubled to 9.3 percent.

Stern said increases in pertussis cases tend to cycle every three to five years, but said the recent increase in vaccine exemptions could be a factor. No matter the exact cause, Stern stressed the importance of updated pertussis vaccinations for county residents of all ages.

 “The higher the immunization rates, the less susceptible to the population is as a whole,” he said.

For more information about Whatcom County’s response to the epidemic, visit the health department's website.
Free vaccination clinic

As Whatcom County experiences epidemic levels of pertussis, also known as whooping cough, the county health department is partnering with Bellingham Technical College to offer a free vaccination clinic.

The Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis) vaccine will be available to adults 19 and older who are around children, live in Whatcom County and are uninsured or underinsured; pregnant women in their third trimester; and youth aged 11 to 18 accompanied by a parent or guardian.

The clinic will be Friday, May 11, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the Bellis Fair Mall community room. For more information, contact the health department at 676-4593.