Thursday December 13, 2012

BRATTLEBORO - Vermont is facing a whooping cough epidemic, and state health officials are urging every child, and adult, to make sure they are immunized against the disease.

Confirmed cases of whooping cough, or pertussis, are 10 times the number that were reported at this time last year and the Vermont Department of Health will offer free vaccine shots at a special one day clinic on Wednesday, Dec. 19, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Health Department District Office at 178 Linden Lodge, and at other district offices across the state.

As of Dec. 8, there have been 522 cases of whooping cough in Vermont, with the most cases reported among children aged 10 to 14. Last year there were 46 cases confirmed on the same date.

More than 20 babies younger than a year have had the disease and six infants had to be hospitalized.

Windham County has the second lowest number of confirmed cases in the state, with only 7 cases reported, but the health department is still encouraging any adult who is not up to date with his or her immunization to attend the clinic, or get vaccinated at a physician's office.

Chittenden County led the state in reported cases with 115, and Addison County had 83. There were 26 reported cases in Bennington County and 23 in Windsor County.

Whooping cough is a dangerous and highly contagious, disease that can be long lasting and potentially fatal, though Vermont has not had a confirmed death from the disease in 20 years.


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"We are seeing reports that are much more than what we expected to see this year,"Vermont Health Commissioner Harry Chen said during a press conference Wednesday. "We are not alone. Other states are also seeing big numbers, but for a small state like ours, it is an epidemic."

The press conference was held just two days after Chen announced that Vermont was being recognized as the healthiest state in the nation, which included its low rate of infectious diseases.

While the majority of cases are in children, Chen says any adult whose vaccination is out of date should get a new shot.

He said teachers and health care workers who work with children should be particularly careful in making sure their vaccinations are up to date.

The early signs of whooping cough can be very hard to recognize and often come on as a slight cold or cough.

But during those periods the disease can be easily spread, and health officials remind everyone to wash their hands often and cough into their sleeves, and not their hands.

Pertussis eventually is recognized by a loud barking cough and the disease can linger for up to three months.

"We all need to do what we can to step up and protect ourselves," said Chen. "We are asking for everyone's help."

Department of Health Epidemiologist Patsy Kelso said every reported case in Vermont was confirmed in someone who had been immunized.

She said the cases began to spike at the end of last year and the Health Department has been watching the numbers grow this year from county to county.

"We need to slow down this epidemic," she said.

She said the vaccine is not perfect, but it was the best defense against the disease.

She said people who are vaccinated are more likely to come down with a less severe case of pertussis if they do get the disease.

The state has purchased an extra 3,500 shots and will offer the free immunizations in all 12 district offices next week.

Kelso says the state will spend about $70,000 on the extra vaccine.

For more information, call 211 or visit the Health Department's web site at www.healthvermont.gov.

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or hwtisman@reformer.com.