Whooping cough starts out with symptoms similar to those of a common cold, Justeen Mansourian, an infectious disease nurse with the health unit, said.
However, the symptoms gradually progress to violent coughing spells which provide the name-sake “whoop.”
Coughing associated with pertussis can get so severe that it can cause broken ribs, loss of bladder control, hernias and collapsed lungs, she said. Sufferers can turn blue in the face or even stop breathing temporarily. Untreated, the illness lasts so long that it's known as the “100-day cough.”
The disease can even be fatal, especially for children under the age of one. One-month-old Harper Whitehead of Lethbridge, Alta., recently died from the disease.
While a vaccine has been around for about 70 years, before 2003, children were given the whole cell version of the injection.
This version of the vaccine gave good protection during childhood, but once those who had received it reached adulthood, their immunity to pertussis started to wane.
These days, children are given the acellular version of the vaccine, which is purer and provides longer-lasting immunity to pertussis, Mansourian said.
Because most adults have lost their immunity to pertussis, the provincial government is now providing free pertussis booster shots for all adults up to the age of 64.
Mansourian said it's an especially good idea for adults who are caregivers for young children who haven't yet received their full series of pertussis shots.
“If they acquire the disease, and they're caregivers, and the children they have in their household are either not immunized or partially immunized, they're placing those children at risk,” she said. “It's really important for anyone taking care of children to follow through with the booster dose.”
She said the pertussis booster shot is available through most primary health-care providers, as well as by appointment at the health unit.
Ontario's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Arlene King, gave similar advice in a July 26 press release.
"I strongly encourage Ontarians - especially those who are around young children - to make sure they are up to date with their pertussis immunization,” she said, in the press release.
“We know the pertussis vaccine prevents the spread of serious illness and death among young children who have not yet been fully immunized against the disease."
In terms of the reasons behind the pertussis resurgence, Mansourian said it's normal for the disease to peak every two to five years.
The number of cases in Ontario have gone up between last year and this year, she said. In the first quarter of 2011, Public Health Ontario reported 130 confirmed pertussis cases.
In comparison, there were 200 cases in the first quarter of 2012.
According to the press release from the province, there's been an outbreak of pertussis in southwestern Ontario, where there's been 240 cases reported since November 2011.
The Greater Sudbury region, though, has seen less than five cases this year, Mansourian said. In 2007, during the last pertussis surge, there were more than 20 cases in the region.
“The cases that are brought to our attention are those that are lab-confirmed,” Mansourian said.
“There could be more cases out in the community, but they weren't swabbed. A lot of physicians do what is called empirical diagnosis. They diagnose based on symptoms.”
Parents who refuse to have their children immunized for pertussis and other diseases are also contributing to the resurgence, she said.
“We do know there are certain parts in the province, particularly in the southwestern regions, where they have groups that choose not to immunize,” Mansourian said.
“For sure that's contributing to sporadic cases, as well as outbreaks they're having down south.”
While there's an effective vaccine against pertussis, it's also important to follow common-sense practices such as washing your hands and covering your mouth if coughing or sneezing with a tissue or your sleeve to prevent its spread, she said.
“Also, if any parent or care provider suspects their child has pertussis, they should follow through with their health-care provider so we can treat it with the appropriate antibiotic,” Mansourian said.
“It might not cure it right away, but it will decrease the severity of coughing spells, and it will decrease the communicability of the actual disease.”
For more information about the pertussis booster vaccine, phone the health unit at 705-522-9200.
Posted by Arron Pickard