In recent weeks, pediatricians from Akron Children’s Hospital Pediatrics (ACHP) have seen an increase in cases of pertussis (whooping cough), a very contagious and potentially deadly illness, especially for newborns and others at high risk.
For example, the pediatricians from the ACHP New Philadelphia office had 14 confirmed cases over a several week period this fall. The office is working with public health officials in Tuscarawas, Harrison and Carroll counties to see if there is any link between the patients, such as sharing the same schools or day care centers.
Cases have also been reported in Hudson, Norton, Warren and other communities in Summit and surrounding counties.
Dr. Andrew Newburn, a pediatrician at the New Philadelphia office, said the recent spike in cases is a reminder of the importance of getting immunized for pertussis, using good hygiene when coughing and sneezing, and seeking immediate treatment when parents notice symptoms consistent with the disease.
“While pertussis vaccines are the most effective tool to prevent this disease, no vaccine is 100% effective,” said Dr. Newburn. “When pertussis circulates in a community, there is a chance that a fully vaccinated person, of any age, can catch this disease but your symptoms will typically be much less severe.”
Pertussis is caused by a type of bacterium called Bordetella pertussis. The bacteria attach to the cilia, the tiny hair-like extensions that line part of the upper respiratory system, and release toxins which damage the cilia and cause airways to swell.
Pertussis is spread by coughing and sneezing. Infected people are most contagious up to about 2 weeks after the cough begins.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend the pertussis vaccine for all babies, children, teens, and pregnant women. The 2 kinds of vaccines used today also help protect against other diseases:
- The diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTaP) vaccine is for babies and children younger than 7.
- The tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (Tdap) vaccine is for older children and adults.
“Since the first dose of DTaP vaccine begins at 2 months of age, newborns are especially at risk for pertussis, a very important reason for parents and caregivers to get vaccinated if they have not already done so,” said Dr. Newburn. “About half of babies younger than 1 year who get the disease need care in the hospital. The younger the baby, the more likely they will need treatment in the hospital.”
The five DTaP doses are recommended at 2, 4 and 6 months, 15 to 18 months, and 4 to 6 years.”
Initially, pertussis starts with cold-like symptoms, including a mild cough or fever. After 1 to 2 weeks, the symptoms of pertussis typically include rapid fits of cough followed by a high-pitched “whoop” sound, vomiting during or after coughing and exhaustion after coughing fits.
“Babies may or may not cough,” Dr. Newburn said. “A significant complication (along with the cough) is “apnea,” or a pause in the breathing. In worst case scenarios, the disease may cause them to stop breathing and turn blue.”
“Pertussis can usually be successfully treated with a 5-day course of antibiotics,” said Dr. Newburn. “A good general rule: for older children, if a cough is not getting better after 7 days or if there are other characteristic findings consistent with pertussis, it’s wise to make a doctor’s appointment. With babies, don’t wait to seek care.”
And while a 5-day course of antibiotics may help ease symptoms, the cough may still persist for weeks.
“Antibiotics are most important in preventing the spread of infection to others,” said Dr. John Bower, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Akron Children’s.