The number of whooping cough cases in Jackson County has soared, prompting public health officials to remind people of the importance of vaccination against the disease, which is highly contagious and potentially deadly to infants.
So far this year 23 cases of whooping cough, also known as pertussis, have been confirmed in the county, more than twice the number usually seen in a whole year, said Viki Brown, Jackson County's public health division manager.
Over the past five years, the county has had an average of 10.8 cases per year. During a serious outbreak in 2003, more than 100 cases were recorded.
The cases that have been confirmed in lab testing this year have hit patients ranging from 2 months old to 55 years old, Brown said. Studies have shown that a relatively small fraction of cases are diagnosed and confirmed, so more people in the county likely have been infected, she said.
The Jackson County Health Department sent an advisory to area doctors in March, when nine cases had been diagnosed, to alert them to the increase in pertussis cases. Since then, the number of cases has continued to rise, Brown said.
She said that enhancing physicians' awareness of the disease's presence in the community can boost the number of diagnoses.
Public health officials haven't seen any clear trends in who is getting sick or where the disease is hitting hardest. "Rogue River has a slightly disproportionate number," Brown said, noting that most cases were linked to an elementary school there.
Ashland, where many parents choose not to vaccinate and which has been hit hard in past outbreaks, hasn't seen especially high numbers of infections so far, she said.
Brown said local cases don't appear to be travel-related, either, although California has declared a pertussis epidemic and infection rates are high elsewhere in the Northwest.
California has declared an epidemic with 910 cases and five deaths — all infants younger than 3 months — confirmed as of mid-June, The Associated Press reported.
Pertussis, a bacterial infection, usually begins with cold-like symptoms and a cough that worsens over a week or two. Symptoms may include intense coughing fits that end with the disease's signature whooping sound and can make eating, drinking and even breathing difficult, especially for babies. The coughing can result in vomiting and loss of consciousness.
Health officials said pertussis is spread through the air by close contact with a sick person. It is contagious for about three weeks or until a patient completes a course of antibiotics. The coughing can continue for months, giving the disease another nickname — the 100-day cough. Severe infections can develop into pneumonia that might require hospitalization, officials said.
A vaccine can protect an individual from the disease and help limit the spread to the youngest and most vulnerable babies who aren't yet protected by their own immunization, public health experts said. The vaccine also guards against tetanus and diphtheria.
Infants undergo a series of four shots starting when they are 2 months old and wrapping up before their second birthday. One more booster is required before starting kindergarten, Brown said. Kids should get a slightly different formulation designed for people between the ages of 11 and 64 when they start seventh grade.
A single booster shot for adults is advised during routine tetanus shots, which are recommended every 10 years.
"We try to be proactive when they get a tetanus shot," Brown said. "Everybody is in contact with somebody."
Right now, however, she and other nurses in the clinic are encouraging people who are around children, including parents, child care providers and health care workers, to make sure they are protected.
Stacy Hamlin, a 29-year-old mother from White City, knows her three girls are up to date on their vaccines, but after watching news about whooping cough in California, she plans to check in with her own doctor to make sure she's covered.
"I have to do it for the babies," she said.
The Jackson County Health Department, 1005 E. Main St., Building A, offers vaccinations against pertussis from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. and from 1 to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. The shot costs $15 for people without health insurance and can be free for those in regular contact with infants and children. No appointment is necessary. Call 541-774-8209 for more information.
Anita Burke is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. Reach her at 541-776-4485, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.