BRATTLEBORO -- Ten children between the ages of 3 and 17 were confirmed to have been infected with whooping cough, or pertussis, in the month of June. In addition to the children, one adult was also diagnosed with whooping cough.
So far in July, according to the Vermont Department of Health, another five cases have been suspected. All but one of the 16 cases are from Brattleboro.
The cases occurred as schools were closing or after they had closed for the summer.
Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a highly contagious disease caused by a bacterial infection of the lungs. While fully immunized children can get whooping cough if it takes hold in a community, vaccination is the safest and most effective way to prevent serious illness. The symptoms of this illness are most severe in infants who are too young to be fully vaccinated.
"Anyone who has a persistent cough should be evaluated by his or her health care provider," said Susan Schoenfeld, deputy state epidemiologist for infectious disease. "People with suspected or confirmed pertussis should stay away from others until five days of antibiotic therapy have been completed. We ask anyone with coughing illness to stay away from infants, and we recommend that pregnant women get vaccinated to pass some protection on to their newborn."
In 2012, said Schoenfeld, Vermont had a pertussis outbreak, in which 645 cases were diagnosed and treated. Oddly enough, she said, very few of them were discovered in Windham County.
Why it has appeared in Brattleboro this year may never be known she said, but Windham County might have gotten lucky that it occurred at the end of the school year. The Department of Health is following up with parents of the afflicted and with health care providers, and is also notifying child care providers and summer camp administrators to keep a close eye on their wards. Schoenfeld credited Windham County health care providers with identifying the local outbreak and reacting to it expeditiously.
"In the early stages it can look like a standard respiratory infection," she said. "Not everybody who has a cough has pertussis, but a prolonged cough followed by a whooping noise, vomiting after coughing or an inability to catch your breath, needs to be evaluated."
Jeannie Marie Flanagan of West Dover said her 16-year-old daughter was diagnosed with pertussis in March.
"She had a cough and a cold and just didn't seem to be getting any better," said Flanagan, who was told by the family pediatrician that her daughter was just the right age for pertussis, between her last vaccination at 11 and before receiving a booster shot prior to entering college.
"It was awful. We had to put the whole family on antibiotics and contact all of her friends," said Flanagan.
Epidemiologists were unable to identify the source of the pertussis that infected her daughter, and she was the only one to be affected by it.
"The cough was so intense. We were in northern Vermont and she coughed and doubled over and we had to take her to the hospital by ambulance. She broke two of her ribs and tore all of the cartilage away from her ribs. To watch what she went through, it should make every parent want to vaccinate their children."
In most cases, pertussis is not fatal and can be treated with antibiotics. It usually runs its course within one to two weeks. But infants can be especially vulnerable to whooping cough, said Schoenfeld.
Anyone who has been diagnosed with pertussis should stay home for at least five days to prevent them from spreading the disease, she said. It's important to identify pertussis so that those infected can be isolated during recovery.
"That way we break the transmission chain and keep it away from infants."
The best protection against pertussis is vaccinations, said Schoenfeld. Infants should receive their DTaP shots two, four and six months after birth and adults should also consult their physicians about the Tdap vaccine, which is for people eight years and older.
"You are eight times less likely to get sick if you have been immunized and even if you do get sick it's likely it will be milder," she said.
Vermont's immunization law requires vaccination of all children enrolled in child care or school, to include DTaP, polio, MMR, hepatitis B and varicella (chicken pox).
However, during the 2012 legislative session, changes were made with regard to the Vermont law that allows for immunization exemptions. If a parent or guardian chooses to exempt their child on religious or philosophic grounds, they must sign an exemption form annually acknowledging they have read evidence-based information regarding immunizations, and are aware of the risks associated with not vaccinating their children.
Students with any exemption may be excluded from school during the course of a disease outbreak.
Additional information about immunizations and required forms may be found at healthvermont.gov/hc/imm/schoolentry.aspx.
For more information about pertussis, visit healthvermont.gov.
Bob Audette can be reached at email@example.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.