Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, sounds like a malady you could've caught 100 years ago.
But cases have been on the rise in recent years. Virginia had 222 cases in 2009 and 344 last year. Eastern Virginia had 34 in 2009 and nearly double that number — 60 — in 2010, according to Dr. Bill Berg, Hampton Health Department director.
What shows up as a pesky, persistent cough in adults can be fatal in infants.
"Pertussis is making a comeback, and we have this vulnerable population out there," Berg said.
That's why health officials are embarking on a public-awareness campaign, urging people who are around infants to get the Tdap vaccination. Tdap protects against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis.
"The idea is to vaccinate family members to form a protective cocoon around the children," Berg said. "In other words, if the only people who are around the child are protected against pertussis, they can't get it and give it to the kid."
Infants receive vaccinations against pertussis but it takes awhile for full immunity to protect them. Infants most often catch pertussis from family members and caregivers, Berg said.
Pertussis can be deadly. About 91 percent of pertussis deaths in the last decade were infants 6 months old or younger. More than half of infants up to 1 year old who get pertussis are hospitalized, according to the health department.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has made about 24,000 free doses of Tdap available through health departments to uninsured and underinsured people in these priority groups:
•Parents, grandparents or other adult household contacts or caregivers of infants less than 1 year old
•Pregnant women in third or late second trimester (after 20 weeks)
•Postpartum women with infants
•Health care workers who care for infants
•Child care workers who care for infants.
The vaccine is available for purchase at local health departments for $58. Several retail pharmacies, including as Walgreens, CVS and Target, offer Tdap shots. Patients could also check whether their physician offers the shot. Medicare Part D covers vaccines, and other insurance plans may, too, Berg said.
It was previously thought that pertussis was a childhood disease that adults couldn't get and that vaccination would generally last a lifetime. Turns out adults can get it, too, and the vaccination's efficacy wears off after about five years, Berg said.
Adults who have pertussis may not realize it until the roughly three-week infectious period is over. Adults tend to think they have a cold. When the cough persists weeks later, pertussis is diagnosed. Coughing fits can last a total of eight to 10 weeks.
Less than 10 percent of adults are protected against the disease, the health department said.
The uptick in infections may be partially attributed to the fear some parents have of vaccinating their children. Previous iterations of the pertussis vaccination came with the potential of a rare side effect of encephalopathy, a brain disease. The new vaccine contains a weaker strain, Berg said.
Parents who want to protect their children should get the booster shot and insist that anyone else who's around the baby gets it, too. Parents whose children are in day care should ask whether caregivers are current on their vaccinations, including Tdap and influenza, and whether other children in the program are required to be vaccinated, Berg said.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun