Health Officials Issue Statewide Pertussis Alert

For immediate release: October 23, 2002

News Media Contact:
Nancy Erickson

Burlington, VT—Health officials are asking physicians around the state to be on the alert for signs of pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough. To date this year, 101 cases of pertussis have been reported to the Vermont Department of Health. An additional 37 cases are under investigation. Hardest hit is Washington County, with 41 cases confirmed and 19 more being investigated.

“We are advising physicians to be on the alert for pertussis in their patients, and we are advising adults and children who have symptoms of whooping cough to contact their physician—especially if they live with or care for infants,” said Susan Schoenfeld, epidemiology field unit chief for the Vermont Department of Health.

Schoenfeld also stressed that there is an adequate supply of pertussis vaccine, which is usually given in the DTaP (diphtheria/tetanus/acellular pertussis) combination.

“We remind parents to make sure that children are up to date on all of their immunizations. Pertussis can be a serious disease for anyone, but is especially so for the very young.”

Pertussis is caused by a bacterium that infects the lungs. It is highly contagious and spreads through the air when infected people cough. People can get pertussis at any age and at any time of year. Treatment with antibiotics early in the disease can decrease the severity of symptoms, and keep infected individuals from passing pertussis to someone else.

The youngest of those confirmed with the disease so far this year was 3 weeks old, and the oldest was 55 years. Although cases of pertussis have been reported sporadically all year, since September 1, 14 new cases have been identified from five counties: Addison-1; Chittenden-1; Washington-8; Windham-2; and Windsor-2.

Pertussis often begins gradually with cold-like symptoms and an irritating cough. Severe coughing spells develop, sometimes followed by whoops, trouble breathing, or vomiting after coughing. The coughing spasms may occur several times a day and the problem may last from four to six weeks. These severe symptoms are most common in young children. Older children and adults may have milder symptoms, but can transmit the disease to others. Coughing children and adults should stay away from infants, especially those less than 6 months old.

Complications from pertussis are most severe for children under the age of 1, and especially for those under 6 months who have not yet completed their first three dose series of vaccine (usually given as the DTaP—diphtheria/tetanus/acellular pertussis shot). Most children who have been fully immunized do not get pertussis. However, because no vaccine is 100 percent effective, and because protection from the vaccine can diminish over time, even people who have been fully immunized can get the disease. This is most common in middle school-aged and older people whose vaccine protection has diminished.