Across Canada, whooping cough outbreaks are surfacing and health officials are urging parents to make sure their child’s vaccinations are up to date so as to prevent further spread of the serious infectious disease.
In Ontario, a school in Bancroft has just announced an outbreak and officials in Blind River are currently dealing with over 50 cases of whooping cough. In Saskatchewan, where health care workers normally deal with about 40 cases per year, officials are confirming 250 cases over the past ten months.
Further west, a school in Calgary, Alberta, has declared an outbreak, with a total of 19 whooping cough cases already identified in the city this year, and in the Interior B.C. several communities are now reporting new cases of whooping cough.
Whooping cough or pertussis is an infection of the lungs and throat that starts with symptoms similar to the common cold -runny nose, sore throat and a mild fever- but it then progresses to a more severe cough that often comes with shortness of breath and vomiting. The disease is particularly dangerous for young children and infants who are at highest risk of complications such as pneumonia, seizures, brain damage and in some cases death.
Vaccinations are the best way to avoid contracting whooping cough and preventing its further spread. Whooping cough vaccine is part of an infant’s immunization schedule in all provinces across the country and is available free of charge. Immunity to whooping cough wears off over time, thus health officials recommend a follow-up booster shot between the ages of 14 and 16. Children who have contracted whooping cough are normally treated with antibiotics.
According to Saskatchewan’s Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab, the recent spate of whooping cough outbreaks can in part be chalked up to a natural four-to-five-year cycle of the disease, but he cautions that all parents are responsible to make the time to get their children vaccinated. “It’s not so much parents not wanting to get vaccinated, it’s keeping those appointments at two, four and six months, getting those vaccinations on time that seems to just be the challenge,” says Dr. Shahab.
A recent analysis of outbreaks of measles and whooping cough in the United States has determined that a substantial number of cases have been contracted by unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated individuals. Researchers found that 57 per cent of reported cases of measles and between 24 and 45 per cent of cases of whooping cough were associated with individuals who had no history of vaccination or had been incompletely vaccinated.
“This review has broad implications for vaccine practice and policy,” say the study’s authors. “Fundamental to the strength and legitimacy of justifications to override parental decisions to refuse a vaccine for their child is a clear demonstration that the risks and harms to the child of remaining unimmunized are substantial.”
Worldwide, there are an estimated 16 million cases of whooping cough per year and about 195,000 deaths in children from the disease, with most deaths occurring in babies who were either unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated.
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