More vaccine doses are being stockpiled in case an outbreak of whooping cough in the eastern Fraser Valley spreads further west.
Hope, Agassiz and Chilliwack have so far seen most of the more than 100 confirmed local cases of pertussis, a highly contagious bacterial infection that causes adults to cough for months but can be deadly to babies.
Fraser Health will acquire another 50,000 doses of vaccine by the second week of February in case public health officials decide to widen their immunization program, which has so far focused on the eastern Valley.
“We’ve seen sporadic cases in Maple Ridge, in Langley and in Surrey, so we know there’s some disease out there,” Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Paul Van Buynder.
“If it’s necessary in the next week or two we will run a program for the whole of the Fraser Valley.”
Pertussis, or whooping cough, is considered more of an irritant for adults, but they act as carriers.
Van Buynder said about half the very young children who contract pertussis are hospitalized and about one or two per cent of those hospitalized die.
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.
“This is a nasty disease and it’s back in the Fraser Valley after an absence of about eight years,” Van Buynder said.
Part of the challenge is that health authorities no longer use an older, more powerful vaccine due to concern over its side effects.
The weaker vaccine that replaced it provides immunity for only about four to 10 years, Van Buynder said.
Fraser Health wants to immunize all adults in outbreak areas who have close contact with young children, to prevent transmission to the most vulnerable.
“We know that there are some parts of the Fraser Valley where there are groups of parents who don’t believe in the importance of immunization and they place the rest of the community at significant risk,” Van Buynder said.
The new vaccine takes at least three doses to fully protect a child, he said, so Fraser Health is now vaccinating them earlier – as young as 14 weeks.
Pregnant women are also being vaccinated, Van Buynder said, because it’s safe to use during pregnancy and immunity will extend to the newborn.
Cases of pertussis in the eastern Valley took off in mid-December in Hope and nearby First Nations reserves.
“We’ve started to see the spread of it down the Fraser Valley moving westward,” Van Buynder said, adding the most recent cases have been in Chilliwack.
Two children have been hospitalized so far and one infected several weeks ago is still fighting the disease in B.C. Children’s Hospital.
2008 story from ImmunizeBC of one B.C. family’s experience with pertussis.