Cincinnati health officials say: 'We're calling it an outbreak' as whooping cough hits Tri-State

CINCINNATI - Whooping cough has come marching back to the Cincinnati region this autumn, extending a worrisome trend of several years.

Now public health authorities are issuing fresh warnings: Children need to be up to date on vaccinations against the nasty bacterial infection, and adults--especially those in contact with newborns and infants--should get booster shots.

“It’s around you, and we know that it’s just a matter of time before you’re having it in your jurisdiction. That’s the concern,” said Rocky Merz, spokesman for the Cincinnati Health Department. “There are things you can do, the most important of which is getting vaccinated.”

Whooping cough warnings

Thursday, the city, Hamilton County Public Health and the Northern Kentucky Health Department put out an alert to the region about whooping cough – or pertussis, its medical moniker. The Cincinnati and Hamilton County reported that together in October, they had a higher-than-average total of 46 cases of whooping cough.

Northern Kentucky registered eight cases in October. Since a 2010 spike in incidents, St. Elizabeth Healthcare has provided more than 10,000 free vaccinations to mothers and family members.

“We hope that’s had a big impact,” said Emily Gresham Wherle, public information administrator for the Northern Kentucky Health Department.

The numbers in Butler and Warren counties are lower than last year. But the city of Hamilton has got a fight on its hands with a spike of 42 cases just since Sept. 1.

"And we’re calling it an outbreak,” says Kay Farrar, the city’s health commissioner.

“What alerted us was that we had two cases within one classroom” at Garfield Junior High School, Farrar said. “Our normal is to have, at most, two cases; it may be someone 45 years old and then a two-year-old who are not related. But this time, a light bulb went off, and we knew we’ve got something here.”

Parental panic

Kristen Rashkin of Mason got her education about whooping cough this week when her 4-year-old daughter came home from ballet class with a fever and that up-all-night cough. 

The first round of tests were not informative, so Rashkin’s pediatrician ordered up an X-ray and a whooping cough test, even though Raskin’s daughter was current on her pertussis shots.

“Right when we walked into the testing area, and the nurse saw the order for a whooping cough test, she had my daughter put on a mask, and everyone who came in contact with her put on a mask. I didn’t realize it was that contagious,” Rashkin said

Test results ultimately found that Rashkin’s daughter was suffering from pneumonia, and she’s responding to treatment. But Rashkin says she found that other parents also were unaware of the rise of whooping cough in the area, “and now they’ve gotten updated on their boosters and gotten people in their families updated. We had no idea it was that big a problem.” 

More cases, near and far

Ohio and the nation have been experiencing recent outbreaks of pertussis, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The spread of infectious diseases generally occurs for many reasons. But research published this summer in the journal Pediatrics found that one cause of a 2010 outbreak in California was that a large number of children had not been vaccinated for whooping cough at all.

But in the city of Hamilton, Farrar said, one of the curiosities of this fall’s outbreak is that all the children who got sick had been vaccinated. Getting the vaccine probably reduced the severity of the illness in each patient, she said.

Craig Davidson, director of epidemiology for Hamilton County Public Health, pointed out that whooping cough “tends to come in cycles or waves. It’s kind of hard to tell when that next uptick is going to be.”

“Some of the theory there is that no vaccine’s perfect,” he said. “It might be a subset of kids in which the vaccines aren’t quite kicking in yet. It can happen in clusters and pockets.”

Whooping cough gets its nickname for a reason; Hamilton County posted a video that at the 45-second mark provides a pathetic sound sampler of a baby with a pertussis cough.

WATCH: What whooping cough sounds like (story continues below)

Next page: What whooping cough looks like, how to find help

Whooping cough comes on like the flu, with a mild fever, runny nose and an occasional cough. Adults whose immunizations have faded may not realize that what they really have is the highly contagious infection. In one or two weeks, severe coughing begins and can last for weeks. Medical attention should be sought.

In infants, the illness can be fatal. More than half of babies younger than a year who get whooping cough must be hospitalized.

Because of the potential danger to infants, pregnant women now get pertussis boosters in their third trimester, and all adults who come in contact with children – including grandparents, care providers and babysitters – should get current on their shots.

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