Health officials are urging parents to have their children immunized to prevent the potentially deadly pertussis, also known as whooping cough.
While Central Alberta has not experienced an outbreak like Southern Alberta, where there are 42 confirmed cases and one infant death this year, Dr. Ifeoma Achebe, Central Zone medical officer of health for Alberta Health Services, said the outbreak serves as a reminder that pertussis is a preventable disease.
The disease is highly contagious and can strike anyone, but children are more susceptible.
In the last seven months, 22 cases of pertussis were reported in Central Alberta, compared to 26 cases in all of 2011 and 16 reported cases in 2010.
Achebe said outbreaks are generally caused by low rates of immunization.
“People are being complacent about immunizing their kids,” said Achebe. “Immunization rates are falling by the day . . . whooping cough is a preventable disease. We are lucky enough to have the vaccine and people should take advantage.”
Immunizations are recommended at two, four, six and 18 months; at four to six years and again in Grade 9. In Alberta, there is no charge through the routine childhood immunization program. AHS offers a free, one-time adult dose of vaccine if adults did not receive the Grade 9 dose.
Achebe said if parents suspect their child may have whooping cough, they should see their family physician or contact Health Link Alberta (1-866-408-5465).
Symptoms may first appear like those of the common cold, including a runny nose, sneezing, fever and cough.
In the case of pertussis, the cough gradually worsens into severe coughing spells that can last up to six to 12 weeks.
Achebe said the child could have trouble breathing and sometimes end with vomiting.
Pregnant women in their third trimester can also transmit the illness to their babies.
“It can be deadly in younger infants, especially for those under three months of age,” she said. “Younger infants have the higher risk of hospitalization and death because they have no immunity. . . . Children under six months of age represent 90 per cent of all the deaths by pertussis. It is a very serious illness.”
Achebe said prevention is the key and the more people are immunized, the lower the chances of an outbreak.
Pertussis is contagious and can be spread through droplets in the air from coughs or sneezes. It can also be spread by coming in direct contact with discharges from an infected person’s nose or throat.
Proper handwashing may help prevent the spread.