Whooping It Up for the Fourth of July
I am sad to report that I am a statistic. I am one of the thousands of people in the Pacific Northwest who have gotten whooping cough this year. The state of Washington
has seen a tenfold increase in cases over last year, and the epidemic is now spreading into Oregon, where I spend a lot of time.
It is hard to know the true scope of this outbreak because only one in five cases is actually confirmed and tracked---maybe even less than that. However, there is general agreement that the real numbers are much higher than we know. Health department budget cuts and pervasive anti-immunization attitudes in the region are thought to be contributing to the problem.
I was probably susceptible because I am allergic to tetanus shots. Since the whooping cough (pertussis) vaccine is often combined with a tetanus vaccine, I haven't had a booster in a long time. Although people who have been fully immunized can still catch whooping cough, they might not get as sick as people who have only been partially immunized or not immunized at all. For that reason, health officials are urging people in Washington and Oregon to get vaccinated. This is especially important for babies and young kids, and anyone who comes into contact with them. Whooping cough can be quite dangerous, even deadly, in little ones.
The disease is caused by a bacterium called Bordatella pertussis, which is spread by droplet transmission and is highly contagious. Antibiotics can reduce the risk of transmission, but they don't do much to change the course of the illness once you have been infected. I have had two courses of antibiotics since this started. I may be less contagious now, but I am still coughing like crazy. And trust me, it's not fun. It starts with mild cold symptoms followed by uncontrollable coughing fits a few weeks later. The coughing can be so severe that it causes vomiting, fractured ribs, fainting, broken blood vessels in the face and eyes, incontinence, difficulty breathing, and even apnea. Not everyone makes the characteristic whooping sound, but when they do, it sounds like this.
People with whooping cough experience frequent attacks of coughing throughout the day, and often they are worse at night. This can go on for weeks or months. In fact, one of the nicknames for whooping cough is the hundred day cough. Believe me, I am counting the days until it is gone.
If you think you have whooping cough or may have been exposed to it, you should see your doctor. Even if you feel fine, a booster shot might not be a bad idea.