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Cases of whooping cough up sharply in Alaska, state says

Whooping cough, a highly contagious bacterial illness that affects the respiratory system and can be fatal for babies and small children, is having a banner year statewide: State epidemiology officials report 210 cases of the disease as of Nov. 24.

That's up from just 24 cases in the state during all of 2011. Over half the cases come from the Anchorage and Mat-Su areas.

But health officials say the rise in cases doesn't constitute an epidemic and people should focus on washing hands and covering coughs instead of panicking.

Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is characterized by the distinctive "whooping" sound made by sufferers.

People of all ages can get it, but it can severely sicken babies and young children, causing pneumonia, seizures, brain damage or death.

More than half of all infants who get it have to be hospitalized, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The illness is passed through breathing in the pertussis bacteria via "up close and personal contact," like sharing water bottles, kissing, hugging and touching, said Wendy Walters of the city's Department of Health and Human Services.

Oftentimes adult caregivers pass it to children.

Cases of whooping cough are up dramatically in Anchorage, too.

This year there have been 60 confirmed cases in the municipality alone, according to the public health officials.

"For the whole of last year we had 11 cases of pertussis that we knew about," said Walters.

Anchorage School District officials have sent home roughly 20 letters to families and classmates of students with confirmed whooping cough diagnoses, said Nancy Edtl, the district's director of nursing and health services.

Influenza and norovirus stomach ailments routinely hit many more ASD students, but whooping cough cases this year represent one of the biggest clusters of a communicable disease Edtl has seen in the six years she's been with the district.

Some 91 of the cases reported in Alaska this year have been among kids ages 1-9, according to data released by state epidemiologists.

Still, it's not quite time to pull out the face masks or keep children out of school.

"I don't want people to be in a panic and think that every kid who is coughing has pertussis," Edtl said.

Anchorage School District students must get the pertussis vaccine, called DTaP for kids up to age seven and Tdap for those older, before entering school.

About 920 of the district's 48,734 students have a religious or medical exemption to mandatory vaccination, Edtl said. That's less than two percent of the student population.

Most of the students with a vaccine exemption -- 700 or so -- have it for a medical reason like a disease that compromises the immune system.

In Washington State, where a dramatic increase in cases led the state's Secretary of Health to declare a pertussis epidemic in April, parents can opt out of vaccines for personal or philosophical reasons.

In Anchorage, under-vaccination among school age kids doesn't seem to be driving the spread of the illness, Walters said.

"You do have those little pockets," she said. "But school-aged children in general tend to be very well-vaccinated."

A bigger problem is that people don't finish the immunization series or keep up with booster shots and immunity can wear off, Walters said.

To protect themselves and their families people should follow regular flu-season precautions, Edtl: wash hands, cover coughs and keep up-to-date with immunizations.

Epidemiology officials say whooping cough may be a possibility if a bad cough lasts longer than two weeks, or if the coughing happens in violent spells accompanied by gagging or difficulty catching breath.

One good thing: Word about the illness seems to be out, according to Walters.

"We get people coming in saying 'My daughter said I cannot come visit my grandchild until I get the vaccine.'"

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at or 257-4344.


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