Whooping cough outbreak in Kent County ‘an extremely serious situation’

DOVER — With many school districts in Kent County opening their doors to a new school year, the Division of Public Health is warning residents to be on the lookout for signs of whooping cough.

The DPH said it is investigating an outbreak of pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough, in Kent County.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website said, “Pertussis is known for uncontrollable, violent coughing which often makes it hard to breathe. After cough fits, someone with pertussis often needs to take deep breaths, which result in a ‘whooping’ sound. Pertussis can affect people of all ages, but can be very serious, even deadly, for babies less than a year old.”

Whooping cough is a highly contagious disease transmitted by coughing or sneezing, or by coming in direct contact with respiratory secretions of infected persons.

“This is an extremely serious situation,” said Dr. Karyl Rattay, director for the DPH. “Whooping cough is a highly communicable disease, and infants and young children are at greatest risk for severe, even deadly, complications,”

The DPH began an investigation in June when it learned of cases of pertussis occurring among the county’s Amish population.

Pertussis is a reportable disease in Delaware and notification to DPH of confirmed or suspected cases is required.

As of last Saturday, the DPH had identified 97 cases of the disease among Amish individuals.

On Wednesday, the DPH received confirmation that the disease has spread when a Kent County child, whose family has ties to the Amish, but lives outside of the community, was found to be infected.

The DPH said vaccination is the best defense against whooping cough, as well as many other diseases such as influenza, measles and mumps.

“Pertussis is a vaccine-preventable disease and we are urging everyone to make sure they are up to date on their immunizations,” Dr. Rattay said. “It is the best and most proactive preventive measure you can take.”

For children to be fully immunized against whooping cough they need five doses of the vaccine (at ages two, four and six months, between 15 and 18 months and between four and six years).

Women should also be vaccinated with every pregnancy so that the infant will have some immunity upon birth.

Adults who will have regular contact with children, or parents of a newborn and younger children, should also get vaccinated.

Dr. Rattay said pertussis may occur at any age, including teens and adults who were vaccinated only at a young age, although infants less than one year of age have the highest rates of complications.

Whooping cough often makes babies and young children so sick that they need to be hospitalized.

Older children, adults, vaccinated individuals and those who have had whooping cough in the past may experience a milder illness but can still spread the disease to younger members of the community, some of whom may be too young to be fully vaccinated.

An infected person can spread the disease starting when symptoms begin to three weeks after the onset of coughing. Coughing frequently lasts for several weeks.

Pertussis is treated with antibiotics. During treatment, infected individuals should stay home and distance themselves from well people in the home as much as possible, cough or sneeze into the inner elbow if tissues aren’t immediately available, and wash their hands frequently.

After completing a five-day course of antibiotic treatment, the individual can return to work, school or other community activities.

DPH said it has been working with members of the Amish community to control the spread of the disease by having discussions with Amish leaders, sharing prevention and social distancing tips directly with infected individuals as well as distributing flyers with the tips throughout the community.

The last outbreak of pertussis in Delaware occurred in early 2014, also among Kent County’s Amish population. More than 200 people were affected.

The DPH is asking physicians and other health care providers to consider pertussis when evaluating a patient with a new onset cough illness.

Individuals are asked to report known or suspected cases of pertussis promptly to the DPH Office of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at 302-744-4990, fax to 302-223-1540, or email to reportdisease@state.de.us.

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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