Whooping cough update: Colorado outbreak hits 1000 cases

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has reported that as of October 6, 2012, a whooping cough (Bordetella pertussis) outbreak has hit over 1000 cases since the beginning of the year, far exceeding the 5 year average of 2007-2011. The chart below shows the dramatic weekly increases in cases in Colorado since beginning of the year.

“Whooping cough cases continue to mount in Colorado, and every new case is a reminder that we need to ensure everyone is up-to-date on their whooping cough immunizations,” said Dr. Rachel Herlihy, director of the Immunization Section at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “It’s especially important for those who have contact with young children, who are more vulnerable to whooping cough.”

According to a 7News report, “This is the worst year in Colorado for whooping cough since 2005 when the state had 1,383 cases, officials said. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is recommending everyone under 65 get a vaccination or a vaccination booster shot to fight whooping cough. Over the past five years, Colorado has averaged 324 cases per year.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pertussis (whooping cough) can cause serious illness in infants, children and adults. The disease usually starts with cold-like symptoms and maybe a mild cough or fever. After 1 to 2 weeks, severe coughing can begin. Unlike the common cold, pertussis can become a series of coughing fits that continues for weeks. In infants, the cough can be minimal or not even there. Infants may have a symptom known as “apnea.” Apnea is a pause in the child’s breathing pattern. Pertussis is most dangerous for babies. More than half of infants younger than 1 year of age who get the disease must be hospitalized. Approximately 1-2% of infants who are hospitalized from pertussis will die.

Pertussis can cause violent and rapid coughing, over and over, until the air is gone from the lungs and you are forced to inhale with a loud “whooping” sound. This extreme coughing can cause you to throw up and be very tired. The “whoop” is often not there and the infection is generally milder (less severe) in teens and adults, especially those who have been vaccinated.

Whooping cough can be easily prevented with the Tdap or DTaP vaccine. The problem is that infants are not initially vaccinated until they are 2 months old, and are not fully immunized until they’re 6 months old, so they are susceptible to adults who may be infected. Adults may have lapsed immunity or may have not been vaccinated.

According to the CDC, Colorado had one of the lowest pertussis vaccination coverage in the US at around 85%. It also had one of the highest increases in vaccine exemptions from 2011 to 2012 of 5.6%. Though this may not be a causal factor in the whooping cough outbreak, it was an important consideration in the current whooping cough epidemic in Washington state. With a low vaccination rate, issues with the effectiveness of the vaccines, and lapses immunity amongst adults, herd immunity in areas like Colorado may become an issue. 

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Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!

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