Whooping Cough Outbreak Prompts New Vaccine Mandates in Illinois

The state is on pace to exceed last year's number of whooping cough cases, with about 1,200 cases reported already.
by | August 13, 2012

A new state requirement has Heather Bezanis breathing a sigh of relief for her sixth-grade daughter.

The resurgence of whooping cough has put parents on edge, including Bezanis. Her daughter has asthma and can't afford an illness that could jeopardize her breathing. Last year, during a statewide outbreak, the child of some friends contracted the disease, and family members had to quarantine themselves at their Naperville home for several days to prevent spreading it.

So Bezanis is happy with a new state imperative for sixth- and ninth-graders to get booster vaccinations by Oct. 15 for whooping cough, also known as pertussis. After last year's outbreak, many parents have simply put the vaccination on the long list of things to do to prepare for the new school year, she said.

"Given what happened last year," she said, "I don't think anybody would want to go through that."

Last year saw a marked increase across Illinois, with more than 1,500 cases, but the Illinois Department Public Health reports that the state is on pace to exceed that total this year, with about 1,200 cases reported already. Health officials warn that cases typically increase late in the year after kids go back to school.

The outbreak is part of a broader resurgence of pertussis nationwide, which is expected to cause the highest number of cases since 1959. Scientists believe the vaccine is wearing off, prompting the requirement for booster shots.

Whooping cough masquerades as a mild cold but can turn cruel and sometimes deadly. It starts with a runny or stuffed-up nose, sneezing and a mild cough, and, in infants, a pause in breathing, according to theU.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. After one or two weeks, the coughing can turn severe and repetitive, making it hard for children and babies to breathe.

When children gasp for breath, they can make a whooping sound, which gives the disease its name. The coughing fits can go on for 10 weeks.

More than half of infants younger than 1 who get pertussis must be hospitalized. From 2004 through 2009, the CDC reported, there were 121 deaths from the disease in the United States -- the majority of them babies.

Because it's so dangerous to newborns, who can't be fully immunized, schoolchildren are required to get vaccinated. Children typically get five doses by kindergarten. The state Department of Public Health generally recommends the booster shots, known as Tdap (for tetanus, diptheria and pertussis), for those 10 and older, including pregnant women.

To reduce side effects, the original vaccine was weakened in 1997. Since then, periodic outbreaks of the disease have occurred. This year, Wisconsin has one of the highest numbers of cases, and the state of Washington has declared an epidemic.

In Illinois, most cases have occurred in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, with a pocket in northwest suburban Cook County. "We don't know why," county health department spokesman Sean McDermott said. "We're definitely looking into it."

Suburban Cook County already has seen more cases this year than last year or the previous recent peak in 2004, said Sandra Martell, interim chief operating officer of the Cook County Department of Public Health.

Age groups hit the hardest are infants and those 10 to 14, while the elderly rarely get the disease, probably because they were either already exposed or got a stronger vaccination given out years ago, Martell said.

Those who get diagnosed are interviewed by county officials, who recommend to family and close co-workers or classmates that they stay home and get preventive antibiotics for at least five days, Martell said.

To protect infants, who can't be vaccinated, Martell said, "We're really pushing for adults to get vaccinated. Adults think, 'I'm done.' They really need to keep up on their vaccinations."

Schools generally have been notifying parents of the new requirement since last school year, and no shortage of the vaccine is expected. A health fair in Waukegan last week drew about 200 kids who got the shot -- a 50 percent jump from last year, Lake County Health Department spokeswoman Leslie Piotrowski said.

The rate of compliance with vaccination requirements statewide is 97 percent, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. But a review by the Tribune last year found about 200 schools in Illinois where the compliance rate was below 90 percent -- a level the state recommends.

Many of the schools were either poor schools where kids may not have a regular doctor, or private schools where parents seek religious or medical exemptions.

In response, state lawmakers passed a law requiring all schools to publicize their vaccination requirement rates, which Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law Wednesday. The information is available at the Illinois State Board of Education website, isbe.state.il.us/.

(c)2012 the Chicago Tribune

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