Some Oregon and national health officials Tuesday recommended that all pregnant women get vaccinated against whopping cough because the disease is surging across the Northwest, even though the number of cases in Cowlitz County and Washington has plummeted over the last year.
Only two cases of pertussis (informally called whooping cough) were reported in Cowlitz County through mid July of 2013, according to the Washington Department of Health. By comparison, there were five Cowlitz cases in 2009, 25 in 2010, 69 in 2011 and 78 through September of 2012.
Statewide, by mid July this year there were 419 cases, down from 3,237 cases for the same period in 2012, according to state health officials. Fourteen Washington counties have reported no pertussis at all this year. Nearly 5,000 cases were reported statewide for all of 2012.
In showing a sharp decline in Washington pertussis cases, these statistics seemed to clash dramatically with a statement issued Tuesday by the Oregon March of Dimes, which said cases in the Northwest “have essentially tripled” over several years.
That is true, in a sense, as the number of Oregon cases rose from 328 in 2011 to 912 cases last year, said Michele M. Larsen, spokeswoman for the March of Dimes Greater Oregon Chapter. Larsen said chapter officials were not aware of a decline in 2013 until a Daily News reporter brought it to her attention.
Larsen said the March of Dimes was reacting to the advice from the National Centers for Disease Control, which issued a vaccination advisory for pregnant women based on data from 2010 to 2012. Several other organizations also joined in, including the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Plans.
“Even if the number of cases look like they’re going down, newborns are unprotected and it is very serious for infants if they come down with whopping cough,” Larsen said.
Elizabeth Vaughn, epidemiologist for the Cowlitz County Health Department, attributed the decline in local pertussis cases to an aggressive immunization program.
“Our numbers are much lower than they were in 2012,” Vaughn said. “The reason is the massive vaccination campaign that continues. The message that all people should be vaccinated is correct. Our numbers have declined. That is a very good thing.”
Alan Melnick, health officer for the Cowlitz County, said pertussis often spikes after vaccination rates decline. “It’s important for people to get immunized.”
Pertussis has become a concern across the nation in part because vaccines developed 20 or 30 years ago did not produce lifelong immunity, Aaron Caughey, head of the Obstetrics and Gynecology Department at Oregon Health and Sciences University, said in the March of Dimes press release..
Whooping cough is often mild or undetectable in adult sufferers. The disease, which is highly contagious, can cause severe illness or even death among infants and young children, according to the press release.
Pertussis is known as whooping cough because of the “whooping” sound people often make while gasping for air during coughing fits. It is a highly contagious bacterial disease that starts off like a cold and leads to severe coughing that can last for weeks.
The disease caused thousands of fatalities every year — particularly among young children — until vaccinations became available in the 1940s. The adult booster shot for pertussis — called the Tdap — has only been available since 2005, so fewer than one in 10 adults are considered adequately immunized, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
To prevent the spread of whooping cough, the March of Dimes and other health organizations are recommending that all pregnant women — even those who have been vaccinated in the past — get vaccinated, ideally during the last three months of pregnancy. Between the 27th and 36th weeks of pregnancy, the vaccination can cross over the placental membrane and safeguard the baby until it is old enough to be vaccinated, around two months of age.
Editor's note (Sept. 4): A previous version of this story misstated the number of statewide whooping cough cases. This version is correct.