Whooping cough at epidemic levels in Jefferson County

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County health officials encouraging residents to get vaccinations

By Chris Ferguson, News Editor

Jeffco has a distinction it most certainly doesn’t want: The county currently leads the metro area in the number of pertussis cases.

“We do have that dubious honor, unfortunately,” said Brown Kyle Brown, a public health nurse with Jeffco Public Health. 

Brown, who works in communicable disease control and immunization, said the county had 309 reported cases of pertussis in 2013. The current outbreak has been classified as an epidemic by the state, Brown said.

Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is a highly contagious respiratory disease. The disease is caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. 

“Pertussis often looks like the common cold,” Brown said. “Often patients will start off with a runny nose, they might have a low-grade fever, and as the disease progresses, the cough will become more pronounced,” he said. “Oftentimes they will develop what is called a paroxysmal cough, or essentially coughing fits where they won’t be able to top coughing. Sometimes they will cough so violently that they will vomit.” 

Coughing can be so severe that those afflicted make a “whoop whoop” sound as they try to catch their breath. The coughing can also lead to apnea, or a temporary cessation of breathing. This is particularly dangerous for infants, Brown said. 

“I’ve seen severe disease in adults,” Brown said. “We’ve seen cases where a person coughed so violently they had a horrific auto accident. We’ve seen people cough so hard they pass out.”

The disease is particularly dangerous for infants, Brown stressed.

“Infants are the ones we are most concerned about with this disease because they can develop some severe complications, such as apnea. They may also develop encephalopathy, which can cause swelling of the brain or brain damage due to lack of oxygen. And also they can die from the disease,” Brown said. 

The main treatment for whooping cough is Azithromycin, also know as the “Z-pack.” Patients usually take a five-day course of antibiotics. However, the toxin produced by the bacteria continues to irritate the respiratory tract.

Pertussis is a “reportable disease” in Colorado, meaning it has to be reported by laboratories or health care providers within 24 hours of diagnosis. 

The majority of whooping cough cases in the county are in school-age children, although the disease can be found in any age group, Brown said. 

Brown said the county health department works with local schools to inform parents once a case has been reported. Once the department confirms a case of pertussis, the department contacts school nurses and recommends posting an exposure notice on a school’s website or as a handout. 

The best way to prevent the disease is through immunization, Brown said. Vaccinations include the DTaP vaccination for all infants at 2, 4 and 6 months. For teens and adults, the Tdap vaccination is given.

The vaccinations are required for all students to attend public school. The federal Centers for Disease Control also now recommends that all pregnant women or those who will be in contact with babies get a Tdap vaccination. 

Jefferson County Public Health has a supply of state-funded vaccine, and vaccine is available even if patients are unable to pay.

“There are no barriers to getting vaccinated,” Brown said.

Brown said the disease is found throughout the county, including Evergreen and Conifer. However, Arvada seems to be the hot spot. 

“We’re hoping that 2014 is going to be a better year for pertussis, but unfortunately I am seeing the volume of cases early in January. I think we are going to see high levels of pertussis in the community,” he said.

Chris Ferguson is a news editor for Evergreen Newspapers. E-mail him story ideas at chris@evergreenco.com.

Pertussis vaccination and prevention

To get yourself or children vaccinated, ask your health-care provider or call the JCPH immunization program at 303-232-6301.

For more information, visit www.cdc.gov/pertussis/or www.jeffco.us/health.

Healthy habits such as washing hands regularly; covering your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing; avoiding touching eyes, nose and mouth; and staying home when ill help to prevent the spread of pertussis and other respiratory illnesses.