The tenacious whooping cough bacterium is still in North Idaho, claiming three new victims within the last two weeks, health officials say.
“That’s a vaccine-preventable disease that we should have better under control,” said Jeannie Bok, Panhandle Health District’s director of family and community health services.
The health district has recorded 134 cases of whooping cough, also called pertussis, since a November outbreak in North Idaho. No one has died, though one child was placed in intensive care because of the contagious disease.
Ironically, a positive side effect of the epidemic was increased awareness of immunization, said Alice Anderson, an immunization educator at Panhandle Health District.
Anderson is one of two educators hired through the VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program to help increase immunization rates in North Idaho.
Bok sought money for the education program months before the whooping cough outbreak, knowing that Idaho’s immunization rate was too low. Only 61 percent of infants to 2-year-olds are immunized in Idaho.
In fact, the entire nation’s infant immunization rate - 64 percent - is among the lowest in the Western Hemisphere. The only two countries there with worse rates are Haiti and Bolivia.
Anderson’s job is to find and eradicate the barriers to getting children immunized. In some cases, it’s a scheduling matter. In others, it’s increasing the vigilance of health service providers.
Cost isn’t a barrier, because those unable to pay are immunized for free at health district clinics.
“Another barrier is the perception that this isn’t critical,” Anderson said. “We haven’t seen the epidemics. We haven’t seen the effects of diseases.”
The pertussis outbreak is just a glimpse of what can happen, health providers say. To prevent more epidemics of pertussis or other childhood diseases, state and federal agencies have set a 1996 deadline to reach a 90 percent immunization rate.
At that level, any outbreak of disease is unlikely, health professionals say.
“That’s an aggressive goal for us,” said Merlene Fletcher, Idaho Immunization Program manager.
Though Fletcher does not have the numbers yet to show if more parents are having their children immunized, she believes the state VISTA education program is working.
“When you look at the outreach, activities, the events, the coalitions, they’ve done a lot,” she said.
The Panhandle Health District VISTA workers have formed coalitions in Benewah, Shoshone, Bonner and Boundary counties to carry on their work when money for their positions runs out.
They have enlisted the help of businesses and others in the “Vaccinate the Gem State” campaign. For instance, Tidyman’s grocery stores will be promoting immunizations on their grocery bags.
The month-long campaign is timed to correspond with National Infant Immunization Week April 24 through 29.
On April 22, Panhandle Health is sponsoring immunization clinics in five counties. Clinics in St. Maries, Kellogg, Coeur d’Alene, Sandpoint and Bonners Ferry will be open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. that day “to reach out to the parents who are working during the week,” Anderson said.
xxxx LOW IMMUNIZATION RATES IN NORTH IDAHO< Childhood immunization rates in the five North Idaho counties are welL below the government goal of 90 percent of all 2-year-olds. Benewah 60 percent Bonner 31 percent Boundary 89 percent Kootenai 62 percent Shoshone 38 percent
Idaho 61 percent
Washington 56 percent
Source: Panhandle Health District. Staff graphic