The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) issued a statewide health alert Tuesday, Sept. 3, urging people to make sure they’re vaccinated against pertussis, a highly contagious bacterial disease that causes uncontrollable, violent coughing — better known as “whooping cough.” DSHS Projections show the number of people sick with the deadly disease this year is on track to reach the highest level in more than 50 years.
“This is extremely concerning,” said Dr. Lisa Cornelius, DSHS infectious diseases medical officer. “If cases continue to be diagnosed at the current rate, we will see the most Texas cases since the 1950s. Pertussis is highly infectious and can cause serious complications, especially in babies, so people should take it seriously.”
DSHS has reported nearly 2,000 pertussis cases so far this year, and according to DSHS data, two of those have been in Jefferson County.
City of Beaumont Health Department Public Health Director Sherry Ulmer said that there have been zero cases of Pertussis reported in Beaumont so far in 2013 and that one case was reported in 2012. Ulmer said that although the numbers reported have been low in this area, Southeast Texans should still take the disease seriously.
“This doesn’t mean that we’re not going to not take immunizations seriously,” Ulmer said. “We sent the (DSHS) press release out to all of our health care providers, hospitals, infection control nurses so that, if they see anybody with the symptoms, they think pertussis and they test for pertussis just to be sure that we’re capturing any possible cases.”
According to DSHS, the pertussis starts with cold-like symptoms and a mild cough. After a week or two, severe coughing can begin and last for several weeks. Coughing fits may be followed by vomiting or a “whooping” sound, the reason the disease is also called “whooping cough.” Pertussis spreads easily through the air when an infected person breathes, coughs or sneezes. People with pertussis are most contagious while they have cold-like symptoms and during the first two weeks after coughing starts.
Ulmer said that many people might not consider the scenario of an adult contracting the disease and passing it to an infant, but that it is a concern because infants are too young to be vaccinated against the disease. While symptoms are usually milder in teens and adults, pertussis can be life threatening for babies because of the risk of apnea, an interruption in breathing.
About 90 percent of pertussis-related deaths are in infants less than 6 months old, according to the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine (JABFM). In fact, the two pertussis-related deaths in Texas this year were infants too young to be vaccinated, the DSHS said in the press release.
To better protect babies, DSHS recommends pregnant women get a dose of pertussis vaccine during every pregnancy, preferably between 27 and 36 weeks of pregnancy. This helps protect the baby before he or she can start the vaccination series at 2 months old and helps keep the mother from getting sick and infecting the baby. Fathers, siblings, extended family members, medical providers and others who will be around newborns should also be vaccinated.
“A lot of times adults could have it and they could pass it on to newborns before newborns start their immunization series,” Ulmer said. “This is why the immunization was added to the tetanus shot.”
JABFM further states, “Recent evidence suggests that immunity from B. pertussis infection, whether vaccine acquired or natural, is not lifelong. In fact, immunity may wane rather quickly, with protection minimal after 10 years.”
This makes it that much more important for adults to get their tetanus shot every 10 years, Ulmer said.
“Once they leave school, a lot of people don’t get their tetanus shot every 10 years,” she said. “But since (pertussis vaccine) is now included in the tetanus shot for the purpose of decreasing pertussis cases, adults should get it every 10 years,” Ulmer said.
According to DSHS, the annual total of “whooping cough” cases likely will surpass the recent high of 3,358 cases in 2009. Ulmer recommended that Southeast Texans take precautions to protect against pertussis.
“If they have private insurance, they need to go to their doctor,” Ulmer said. “If they are uninsured, they can come to us. If they have Medicaid, we will see them, but we still do encourage them to link up with their medical home.”
If you have any questions or need clarification about your immunization status, contact your physician or the Beaumont Public Health Department, 950 Washington Blvd., at (409) 832- 4000.
DSHS recommends that anyone with unexplained, prolonged cough or who has had close contact with a person with pertussis should contact their healthcare provider. Early diagnosis and treatment might reduce the severity of symptoms and shorten the contagious period. Doctors who suspect a pertussis infection are required to report it to their local health department within one working day. Patients who have pertussis should not go back to work or school until they’ve completed five days of antibiotic treatment.
Parents are urged to check their children’s shot records to be sure they are completely vaccinated against pertussis and should keep infants, especially those less than 6 months old, away from people with a cough. Adults should talk to their medical provider about receiving a booster dose of the Tdap vaccine.
For more information, visit www. dshs.state.tx.us.