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Whidbey's pertussis epidemic continues; Doctors say: Get vaccinated!

Karen Backman, registered nurse at North Whidbey Community Clinic, administers a pertussis vaccination to a patient.  - Nathan Whalen/Whidbey News-Times
Karen Backman, registered nurse at North Whidbey Community Clinic, administers a pertussis vaccination to a patient.
— image credit: Nathan Whalen/Whidbey News-Times

The pertussis epidemic continues to spread throughout Whidbey Island mainly due to people not getting vaccinated or not keeping their vaccinations up-to-date. The 18 reported cases last Friday became 27 cases on Thursday at noon, with various cases still being tested.

The Island County Health Department asks that anyone organizing children’s activities this summer, including Little League, forgo them until there is a reduction in the number of children coughing. If coughing, people shouldn’t be in public places. Coughing on others spreads pertussis rapidly.

“Adults spread this disease more than kids, and might not know it,” said Island County Health Officer Roger Case. People shouldn’t attend public gatherings, from art shows to movies, until this has subsided.”

“If you’re sick, stay home and get tested and keep immunizations up to date,” Case said.

For a while, nearby clinics ran out of testing materials because of the abnormally large number of children with symptoms. Now, clinics are back on their feet and still testing many cases.

Simply getting vaccinated can drastically help prevent contracting the disease and spreading it. People who are fully vaccinated don’t have to worry about keeping away from public places.

“Getting a booster vaccine will quickly improve your immunity,” said Robert Wagner, MD, whose clinic is in Freeland.

Most adults

not protected

Being fully vaccinated means having received the Tdap vaccine within the past 10 years for ages 12 and up. The portion of the Tdap vaccine that protects against pertussis was just added to the vaccine within the past two years, so most adults are not protected. Before two years ago, the vaccine, Td, only protected against tetanus and diphtheria.

The problem is that “most people have not had their shots,” said Wagner.

Sometimes, lack of vaccination is more than an oversight, it’s intentional.

“A lot of people have an anti-vaccination outlook,” Wagner said. This is especially prevalent on South Whidbey, allowing most of the pertussis cases to crop up there.

However, vaccinations provide true disease prevention.

“That seems to make more sense than suffering from the disease,” said Wagner.

Recently, Wagner saw a young patient with pertussis. His mother was too concerned about the vaccine so the child was left unprotected. Now, the mother is forced to miss five days of work to care for her child when this situation could have easily been prevented.

The booster shot is very safe and well-tolerated, unlike in older days, according to Wagner. Due to scary rumors that vaccinations cause autism or brain damage, “too many people are quick to get scared and shut down,” said Wagner.

There is plenty of scientific evidence that vaccines are safe. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Health Department, among others, can supply this information.

“So these kinds of epidemics are wake-up calls,” Wagner said.

Washington state allows people to decline vaccinations for themselves or their children due to personal and religious reasons.

“I think schools have been far too lenient on letting kids do this,” Case said.

“With common sense, it’s easy enough to see that people who will get this disease are unvaccinated or not completely vaccinated,” Wagner said. “We encourage vaccination for prevention.”

“Pertussis flares up on occasion. It’s a really good reminder of getting kids immunized,” said Tim Church, communications director for the Washington State Department of Health. He hasn’t heard of any other pertussis outbreaks in the state. The Department of Health supports the local health department and said it seems to be doing what’s necessary to control the outbreak.

Wagner plans to have community discussions on prevention at a later date.

Vaccinations can be received at any healthcare provider. They are also available at the Family Resource Center on Mondays from 1 to 4 p.m. in Oak Harbor or Community Health Services in South Whidbey first and third Tuesdays from 1 to 4 p.m., no appointment necessary. These clinics will administer the vaccine to any age that is willing to pay for it.

All cases of pertussis should be reported to the Health Department at 360-679-7351. For more information on pertussis, visit www.islandcounty.net/health/pertussis.htm. For more information on the vaccine, visit the American Academy of Pediatrics at www.aap.org/healthtopics/immunizations.cfm.

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