Whooping cough outbreak in the West Kootenays

Eight adult cases and 11 patients under the age of 18 since the start of June; IHA says sometimes months go by without any.

A photo of a man preparing a medical needle.

It’s a sound no one likes to hear — a repetitive, persistent cough that is followed by a “whooping sound” when the person breathes in.

An outbreak of Pertussis, commonly called whooping cough, is occurring in the West Kootenays and, so far, there has been eight adult cases and 11 patients under the age of 18 since the start of June.

“Whooping cough, in the pre-vaccine era, was the biggest killer of kids and so, it’s especially severe for infants and toddlers,” said Dr. Rob Parker, medical health officer with the Interior Health Authority who was reached by telephone in Kelowna on Wednesday, Aug. 21.

“Whether a child or an adult gets whopping cough, the first week is pretty non-specific. A parent might think the child or themselves just has a common  cold. With whooping cough, the cough just gets more frequent and episodes get more and more pronounced.”

If after one or two weeks, those symptoms haven’t subsided, Parker recommends a visit to a doctor for a test.

He said there hasn’t been any recent West Kootenay cases in infants under the age of one, but those are the cases often requiring hospitalization and sometimes even resulting in death.

Parker said the West Kootenays has some of the lowest childhood immunization rates in the province and hopes parents rethink their decision to not have children immunized.

“It’s not just by chance that we’re getting repeated whooping cough outbreaks in the West Kootenays,” said Parker. “We had the outbreak in 2006 and another in 2010.”

Infants get four shots in the primary series of immunizations to protect them from whooping cough and then two booster shots up to grade nine.

According to Parker, the percentage of two-year-olds who have up-to-date immunizations is about 85 to 90 per cent in B.C.; in the West Kootenays that number falls to 65 per cent. Having more adults and children susceptible to the disease means it can spread far more easily. As newborns can’t be immunized until two months of age, they run a greater risk of exposure.

“We haven’t had any [patients] from Castlegar yet,” said Parker. “Usually for the West Kootenay area, we might see one or two in a given month. Many months might go by where we don’t see any cases; for this outbreak, since the start of June, we’ve had 19 cases.”

Parker added that most of the patients to date have been from either Rossland or Trail.

“In Chinese medicine, it’s called the 100-day cough,” said Parker. “It eventually does go away.”

He said people are considered infectious — the bacteria can be spread by coughing — during the first month but after that, they may cough for another two months. In the first few weeks of the infection, the bacteria inflames the lungs and they stay that way for a long time.

“You don’t get permanent immunity to whooping cough the same way you would to having either measles disease or the measles,” said Parker. “Whooping cough is a bacteria and causes its symptoms on the surface linings of the lungs.

“People’s best immunity is sort of in the blood stream and the organs and you can’t get permanent immunity to whooping cough. We don’t have either the vaccine technology or it’s just the nature of this type of infection.”

You can find out what vaccine your child needs on ImmunizeBC at www.immunizebc.ca/vaccine-schedules

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