In April 2012, Washington declared a whooping cough (pertussis) epidemic, calling on help from epidemiologists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), according to OPB News. Now, a weekly pertussis update from the Washington State Department of Health shows a total of 529 cases reported statewide through Sept. 1 (week 35 of the year), compared to 4,071 reported cases in 2012 during the same time period.

“Vaccination is the best protection against whooping cough and a future epidemic,” the Department of Health website notes. A total of 14 counties in the state have reported no pertussis activity at all for 2013 so far, while 25 counties show ranges from one to 92 in the number of cases reported.

Meanwhile, Oregon health officials are reporting 360 cases so far this year in comparison to 791 cases at this same point in 2012. Last year in Oregon, the majority of cases occurred in the Portland metropolitan region with ages of affected individuals ranging from eight days old to 90 years old. The median age for infection was 10. Twenty-five infants, all but one three months or younger, were hospitalized at that time.

Whooping Cough

A contagious respiratory tract infection, ‘whooping cough’ or pertussis is caused by the bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. When the bacteria attach to the cilia that line part of the respiratory system, they release toxins that damage the cilia and cause inflammation. All of this results in a distinctive 'whooping’ cough.

Pertussis is spread from person to person, usually by coughing or sneezing while in close contact with others, who then breathe in the bacteria. Symptoms commonly develop within seven to 10 days after exposure but, in some cases, a person may not show signs of having contracted the infection for as long as six weeks. Any severe cough or any cough that lasts for a long time should be checked by a doctor — it may be pertussis.

DTaP is the name of the childhood vaccine (combined with diphtheria and tetanus vaccines) while the pertussis booster vaccine for adolescents and adults is called Tdap. The CDC notes that even though the vaccine is effective, if whooping cough is circulating in a community, a fully vaccinated person of any age may still catch it. In such cases, though, the illness is usually less severe. Last year, OPB News reported that the epidemiologists investigating cases of pertussis in Washington urged adults and teens to get vaccinated because it is possible to be contagious without knowing it. Unfortunately, this is a likely way of infecting others.