State health officials said Tuesday that whooping cough has reached epidemic levels in Washington and urged vaccines for all children and adults to help prevent the disease.
About 640 cases had been reported in 23 counties including Pierce, King and Thurston as of March 31, putting the state on track to have the highest number of reported cases in decades, officials said. There were 94 cases reported during the same period last year. No deaths have been reported this year.
“We’re seeing a lot more cases than we consider normal,” Health Secretary Mary Selecky said during a news conference at a state laboratory in Shoreline. “We’re concerned about the trend. We want the trend to stop.”
In Pierce County, there have been 90 confirmed cases this year, the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department reported. By comparison, there were 128 cases in 2011, up from 84 in 2010.
The number of Pierce County cases has been increasing each month. There were 14 in January, 30 in February and 46 in March, health department spokeswoman Bridget Vandeventer said. She noted the March numbers could rise as other reported cases are confirmed.
Health officials have confirmed four cases so far this year in Thurston County.
“We know there are more cases out there that aren’t identified or aren’t reported,” said Thurston County Health Officer Dr. Diana Yu. “The problem with pertussis is by the time people get diagnosed, they’ve already been coughing for a long time, and sometimes the test comes back negative or they don’t bother going to the doctor.”
To lower the risk even more, “cover your cough, wash your hands, stay home when you’re sick,” she added. Pertussis, or whooping cough, is a highly contagious respiratory illness spread by coughing and sneezing, but one that can be prevented by getting vaccinated, health officials said.
Whooping cough – which causes cold-like symptoms followed by a long, severe cough – is most dangerous for infants, though it affects people of all ages. Four infants have died in the previous two years in Washington.
Infants are particularly vulnerable to whooping cough because they can’t be immunized before they’re 4 to 6 weeks old. Infants often get the illness from adult family members, so Selecky urged parents, caregivers, teens and anyone who comes in close contact with infants to get a whooping cough booster, called a Tdap. The shots children get wear off over time.
“Many adults don’t realize they need to be vaccinated, or they assume they have been,” said State Health Officer Dr. Maxine Hayes, a pediatrician. She also asked the public to use good health manners to help prevent spreading whooping cough, such as covering coughs and staying at home when sick.
There were 965 cases reported statewide in 2011, compared with 608 cases in 2010. Whooping cough typically flares up every three to five years; it last peaked in Washington in 2005 with 1,026 cases reported.
Only about 10 to 12 percent of cases are typically reported, so health officials say the numbers are only the tip of the iceberg.
Counties with no confirmed cases of pertussis include: Adams, Asotin, Chelan, Columbia, Douglas, Ferry, Garfield, Grant, Klickitat, Lincoln, Okanogan, Pacific, Pend Oreille, San Juan, Skamania, Wahkiakum, and Whitman.
Staff writer Stacey Mulick contributed to this report.