Whooping cough outbreak prompts region-wide vaccine push

Fraser Health decides to act to combat spread of pertussis

A booster shot to immunize against pertussis

A spreading outbreak of whooping cough has prompted Fraser Health to extend its vaccination campaign across the region.

More than 150 people are believed to have contracted pertussis, a highly contagious bacterial infection that causes adults to cough for months but can be deadly to babies.

Medical health officer Dr. Elizabeth Brodkin said efforts to combat the illness had focused on Chilliwack and Hope – where the outbreak began – but said the vaccine is now being made available to doctors and pharmacists across the region.

“More and more we are seeing cases outside of Fraser East,” she said.

Whooping cough cases are appearing in Burnaby, New Westminster, Langley and Maple Ridge, Brodkin said.

“We didn’t want to wait until we were seeing huge numbers of cases and a very aggressive spread,” she added. “We saw enough cases we became concerned and decided it was time to act.”

Adults and youth in contact with young children who have not had the pertussis vaccine in the last five years are urged to get vaccinated.

The goal is to immunize adults – for whom pertussis is more of an irritant – so they don’t act as carriers infecting infants, who are most at risk and are hospitalized in more than half of cases.

Three children have already been hospitalized due to the outbreak, including one two-week-old baby that ended up in intensive care for five weeks. All three have recovered.

“It’s a nasty infection and even deadly in young infants,” Brodkin said.

Three-quarters of infants infected get it from parents or close family members.

California had a huge outbreak in 2009 that claimed the lives of 10 children, five more died in Saskatchewan in 2010 and two more children died last year just across the border in Washington State, where authorities are still battling an outbreak.

The vaccine lasts only about five years so many people who got it in the past are no longer protected.

Early symptoms of pertussis are similar to a cold, but often worsening to severe coughing that sounds like a whoop or crowing sound as the patient breathes in. Symptoms develop seven to 14 days after infection.

For more information and a list of pharmacies that perform immunizations, see www.fraserhealth.ca/whoopingcough.