March 5, 2009 in City

State fears outbreak of disease

Whooping cough-infected wrestlers attended tournament
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Symptoms

Symptoms of whooping cough, or pertussis, include a persistent cough occurring in bursts that may end in vomiting or gagging. In teens and adults, symptoms may be mild, such as a runny nose, mild cough, sneezing and a low-grade fever. It may also cause a severe and violent cough that may be followed by a high-pitched “whoop” when inhaling.

More than a dozen high school wrestlers and fans infected with whooping cough attended the Washington state high school wrestling tournament in Tacoma two weeks ago, and state health officials fear a large-scale outbreak of the disease, which has now been reported across the state.

Also called pertussis, the contagious disease is especially dangerous – even deadly – for babies younger than 18 months who have not completed their early childhood vaccines.

The illness is relatively uncommon. There were 34 cases of whooping cough in Spokane County and 482 statewide in 2007, according to state Health Department statistics. Many more cases may go undiagnosed.

Investigators with the Department of Health working to stop the latest outbreak have been trying to track everyone exposed to the disease. Their job could be daunting: More than 1,000 wrestlers and 30,000 fans filled the Tacoma Dome on Feb. 20-21.

Several wrestlers from Spokane have exhibited symptoms of whooping cough and were put on antibiotics.

“At this point we don’t know how many kids have it,” said Michele Roberts, a manager in the Health Department’s immunization program.

The department has been working with local health districts and school nurses to get an accurate number and warn the athletes and their families and fans. It plans to issue a press release today to alert communities.

Though the outbreak could be serious, news regarding its scope has been slow to spread. Ken VanSickle, assistant principal and activities coordinator at University High School, said he hadn’t heard that wrestlers and fans might have been exposed to whooping cough at the tournament.

Bill Edstrom, an epidemiologist for the Spokane Regional Health District, said older children and adults can get new vaccines that would make them immune to whooping cough and thus less likely to spread the disease to small children who have not completed their vaccine regimen.

An unrelated case of the whooping cough was diagnosed about 1 1/2 weeks ago in an unvaccinated girl younger than 2 years old and in day care, Edstrom said.

Investigators identified 37 people who had contact with the toddler and traced it to a family member.


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