Topeka Whooping cough is on the rise in Kansas, and state health officials on Wednesday urged families, especially those with young children, to protect themselves against the disease, which can be deadly.
The warning comes after an increase in whooping cough cases, also known as pertussis, throughout the state.
There have been 535 reported cases in Kansas this year, compared with 251 last year. Forty-seven of the cases reported so far this year were in Douglas County, making it the county with the fourth-highest rate in the state.
Just this week, students from the Cheney school district in south-central Kansas got an early start on their winter break when the district opted to close for the holidays three days early after two students were diagnosed with the disease. Several more, including teachers, were suspected of having it.
Barbara Schnitker, director of nurses for the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department, said the disease could be tricky to self-diagnose, especially in the early stages.
"At first it appears like cold symptoms, but then the cough does not go away : It's not unusual this time of year for people to have respiratory issues, but if a cough has been around for a couple of weeks it's time to get it checked out," Schnitker said.
Dr. Howard Rodenberg, Health Division Director for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, noted that the increase in reported cases from 2004 to 2005 could also be a consequence of improved technology. In recent years, tests have become cheaper and simpler to perform, and that has made diagnosis easier.
"We have more people who are aware of pertussis, so more people have come to their doctor with a persistent cough wondering what's going on.
"They get the test done, and so we see these numbers starting to rise. It's a function of the fact that we can do a better job assessing these patients and a better job of testing for pertussis," Rodenberg said.
Infants at risk
Whooping cough is most dangerous for infants and is highly contagious. Rodenberg said this is why it's important for everyone in the home to be protected.
"One of the new things we have available : is a new vaccine, which has just been made available to immunize for pertussis in both adults and adolescents.
"We now have the opportunity to give more infants protection not only by immunizing them, as we've always encouraged people to do, but also by immunizing their caregivers against pertussis," Rodenberg said.
DTaP, (pronounced "D-tap") is a combination of vaccinations for diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. DTaP is the newer, safer version of DTP, which is no longer used in the United States, officials said. Until recently, pertussis vaccines, including DTaP, were only licensed for children age 7 and younger. A booster shot, containing only tetanus and diphtheria, was recommended for anyone older than 7. Earlier this year, health officials cleared the vaccine for older children and adults up to 64 years.
Though there is now the possibility of getting vaccinated at an older age, experts warn that infants are the most susceptible to the disease and therefore need to be protected at an early age. DTaP is recommended by KDHE in a series of four injections between the ages of 2 months to 12 months. A booster shot follows when the child enters kindergarten.
There has only been one pertussis-related death in Kansas this year. A 2-month-old infant in south-central Kansas died this past summer, officials said.