Humboldt County health officials announced the first local case of pertussis, better known as whooping cough, on Friday morning. The disease, which is highly contagious and can last for up to three months, was last diagnosed in the county in 2016.
“Right now, school is not in and that’s a point in our favor,” said Hava Phillips, a communicable diseases supervisor with the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services.
Health officials stated it was a 16-year-old Eureka resident who was diagnosed with the disease. The teen came into contact with as many as 40 individuals during the disease’s contagious period, many of whom the agency had reached out to Friday.
“There are other suspected cases,” said Nicole Hartigan, RN Clinic Coordinator with Open Door Community Health Clinics on Friday afternoon. “… There is only one confirmed case.”
Hartigan said incidents of whooping cough come in cycles.
“Typically, pertussis, it waxes and wanes,” she said. “We are coming up on the six-year mark of having an outbreak in our county. Public health has been projecting this to happen for the last year or two.”
There is a vaccine available that can help prevent contracting the disease and in this case, the teen was “fully vaccinated,” Phillips said. The vaccine she said functions much like a flu vaccine in that is not 100% effective.
“People who get the disease, they will have a shorter duration of illness,” said Phillips. “That becomes especially important in the case of infants, where it can be life-threatening.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the vaccine is 80% to 90% effective.
“Pertussis vaccines are effective, but not perfect,” the CDC website states. “They typically offer good levels of protection within the first 2 years after getting the vaccine, but then protection decreases over time. Public health experts call this ‘waning immunity.’ Similarly, natural infection may also only protect you for a few years.”
An estimated 91% of students in local school districts are vaccinated for pertussis, although some local schools have significantly lower percentages of vaccinated students according to state data. But with many students out of school for the summer, that helps slow the spread of the disease.
There have been no cases of pertussis in the county since 2016. According to data from the Calfornia Department of Public Health, there was a single diagnosis that year. There was a larger outbreak between 2014 and 2015, when there were 204 cases in the county. While the disease can be fatal, there have been no local deaths in recent outbreaks, Phillips confirmed.
According to the CDC, the disease can be fatal for infants — an estimated 1 in 100 infants die. Roughly half of all infants who contract whooping cough need to be hospitalized. And three in five infants experience apnea which is slowed to temporarily stopped breathing. Teens and adults who contract the disease experience less severe symptoms — one in three will have a loss of bladder control and one in three will see weight loss. In more severe cases, the coughing can be so intense it causes rib fractures.
Both Phillips and Hartigan urged vaccination as the best way to prevent the disease.
“The best route of decreasing that risk is to get vaccinated,” said Hartigan. “If they are an Open Door patient, they can call and come on in. And I know Public Health offers the vaccine as well.”
Phillips added that pregnant mothers in their third trimester can get the vaccine to protect their unborn child.
“Our main message is pertussis is especially dangerous for infants under a year old,” she said. “We highly recommend that people check to see if they are up to date in their vaccines.”
Ruth Schneider can be reached at 707-441-0520.