Whooping Cough Making a Comeback

July 25, 2012 Updated: August 13, 2012

Whooping cough appears to be making a comeback in Canada, with four provinces—British Columbia’s Fraser Valley, southern Alberta, and parts of Ontario and New Brunswick—seeing outbreaks of the disease this year.

Southern Alberta, which usually has one to three cases per year, has had over 40 confirmed cases, including a one-month-old baby girl who died last month from whooping cough-related complications.

Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) says that New Brunswick had 1,024 reported cases as of July 17. In Ontario, between Jan. 1 and April 30, 170 cases were reported, up from the 29 cases last year in the same time frame, according to Public Health Ontario.

The disease has also made a startling comeback in the U.S., with some 18,000 reported cases. “Year-to-date case counts from 2012 have surpassed those from the previous five years for the same period” in the U.S., according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Whooping cough, or pertussis, is highly contagious, and the current outbreak has Canadian public health authorities scrambling to boost their vaccination programs.

The disease is especially deadly for infants. Children have little if any immunity for the first three months of life. Infants under six months of age represent almost 90 percent of pertussis deaths, according to Alberta Health Services.

Though easily preventable through vaccinations, it is difficult to cure once contracted.

Thanks to the vaccine, incidences of pertussis have decreased for those aged 15 to 19 years. The 18.7 cases per 100,000 people in 2003 became 2.8 per 100,000 by 2009.

Deadly Despite Vaccine

However, while pertussis vaccines are very effective, no vaccine is foolproof 100 percent of the time, notes CDC.

“If pertussis is circulating in the community, there is a chance that a fully vaccinated person … can catch this very contagious disease.”

Dr. Doug Jenkinson, a retired family doctor in England, runs whoopingcough.net and has dealt with more than 700 cases. The village of Keyworth, where he did the majority of his studies, seemed to have over 30 times more outbreaks than other places in the U.K.

“Whooping cough has been to a great extent ignored and forgotten for half a century or more, because immunization has been so successful at reducing the number of cases of the disease. It did, however, not completely go away … Some people think it is making a comeback,” writes Jenkison on the site.

It takes more than inhaling one bacterium to catch whooping cough. “You probably need to inhale hundreds or thousands unless you are really susceptible (like the newborn),” he writes.

PHAC’s website notes that symptoms are similar to the common cold but intensified. They include coughing spells that last more than three weeks in 80 percent of cases.

PHAC estimates that in Canada, one to three people die from whooping cough each year.

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