Health officials are reporting an outbreak of pertussis in the Waupaca area.
In the last two weeks, nine cases of pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough, have been reported in Waupaca and Portage counties, with several more patient tests and results pending.
The patients have ranged in age from 6 months to 15-years-old. The youngest three patients have never been vaccinated.
“Pertussis is a highly contagious respiratory tract infection,” said Dr. Zach Baeseman, with ThedaCare Physicians-Waupaca.
The best thing patients can do is protect themselves by receiving a pertussis vaccination, which is often given with diphtheria and tetanus vaccines.
“Infants and adults with compromised immune systems are at the greatest risk from the infection,” said Baeseman, noting that exposure to the infection could put them at risk of complication, which would require hospitalization.
For infants less than 6 months old, the complications can be life-threatening.
“Parents can protect their babies by encouraging those in the family or those who come in contact with the baby to get the vaccination,” he said, noting ThedaCare’s program to “cocoon” family members of newborn babies.
Pertussis can start with regular cold-like symptoms. One of its main indicators is a severe hacking cough followed by a high-pitched intake of breath that sounds like “whoop.” However, many people do not always develop the whoop so a hacking cough may be the only symptom that an adolescent or adult has whooping cough.
If whooping cough is suspected, the patient needs to be tested, treated with antibiotics, and isolated. Testing may include a nasal swab. If pertussis is suspected, the patient may also be tested with blood tests and chest X-ray to rule out other illnesses. However, these don’t necessarily help make the diagnosis of pertussis. It can take 3 to 5 days for the test results to come in.
Antibiotics are prescribed to make the infection less contagious. All family members may be given antibiotics. There is not much that can be done to relieve the cough and over-the-counter medicines have little effect and are discouraged.
For home treatment, doctors recommend plenty of rest and fluids; preventing the spread by covering coughs; eating smaller meals to prevent vomiting during coughing; and vaporizing the room, or taking a warm shower or bath, to soothe irritated lungs and to help loosen respiratory secretions.
Bette Casey, infection prevention practitioner at Riverside Medical Center in Waupaca and ThedaCare Medical Center-New London, said Portage County and Waupaca County Health Departments reported they are seeing more adults between the ages of 55 and 75 coming to public vaccination clinics for Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis) vaccinations.
“Many of them were there because they were expecting a grandchild and the expectant mother was told by her doctor that everyone who the newborn is going to come in contact with should be vaccinated,” she said. “This is great.”
She said being proactive falls in line with recommendations by the Tdap Cocooning Initiative, which is a state-funded program available at all ThedaCare Birth Centers.
The state-funded program provides free Tdap vaccinations for moms and other family members and close contacts of the newborn while mom and baby are inpatients at the Birth Center. This program is the last attempt to get everyone informed about the danger that pertussis poses to infants and encourage them to get vaccinated. The cocooning program is ideal for those who cannot afford it or do not have health insurance. Others with health insurance should still get the vaccine through their health care provider or pharmacy.
It is recommended that the expectant mother and family members receive the vaccination at least two weeks before the birth, Casey said.
“Eventually, babies get the vaccine but not as newborns,” Casey said.
She noted that babies start receiving the vaccination at 2 months but have to wait for three full doses to be fully protected.
“From birth to that vaccine, they are highly susceptible to the disease,” Casey said. “When family members receive the vaccine, they are cocooning the newborn, or wrapping them in the arms of family members who are protected against whooping cough. Their chance of contracting the disease is diminished.”
Casey also encourages the influenza vaccination to protect the very young and elderly. Many people can be carriers without really being sick themselves. “They could be carrying the virus in their nasal secretions and spread it when they cough or sneeze contaminating other people or surfaces,” she said. “That person’s immune system may be strong enough to fight off the virus but the very young and the elderly do not have strong immune systems so that same virus that didn’t make one person ill could cause a serious or even fatal viral infection to a person with a weak immune system.”