As Maine children head back to school, Dr. Dora Anne Mills, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, is worried about the spread of whooping cough, a potentially deadly bacterial infection more formally known as pertussis.
On Monday, the Maine CDC issued a health advisory for parents and health professionals, urging them to be vigilant in checking out the symptoms of pertussis and strongly recommending the vaccine that prevents the infection.
So far this year, 32 Maine residents have been diagnosed with pertussis, according to the advisory. Of those cases, 11 were diagnosed in the past month.
“With school reconvening, I’m concerned we’ll be seeing more cases,” Mills said. By immunizing their own youngsters, parents also protect unvaccinated children and infants against the potentially deadly disease, she said.
Characterized by a low fever, runny nose and episodes of intense coughing — often followed by a low “whoop” while drawing a breath — the symptoms of pertussis are debilitating and can last many weeks. The disease is rarely fatal in healthy children or adults, but in infants and individuals with suppressed immune systems, it can be lethal.
Nationwide, public health experts caution that this fall and winter are shaping up to be bad for whooping cough. As of two weeks ago, almost 10,000 new cases of pertussis had been reported in 2010, almost surpassing the total number of cases reported in 2009.
Many cases have been reported in California, where the incidence of pertussis is at a 50-year high. Eight infants have died in California, all but one too young to have been vaccinated. The one exception had received just one of the five doses of vaccine doctors recommend before age 4.
Mills said the number of pertussis cases in Maine is not unusual for this time of year, but it is noteworthy that they are evenly distributed throughout the state and not associated with an outbreak at a school or day care.
“This year, we have small pockets in various places,” she said. “It’s concerning because they don’t seem to be connected.” Any infected person, adult or child, can trigger an outbreak among other unvaccinated individuals, Mills said.
A growing number of Maine parents are opting out of the routine childhood immunizations that protect their children, fearing a link between vaccines and ballooning rates of autism and other neurological disorders, Mills said. The problem is worse in southern Maine and along the midcoast.
“I am concerned that vaccines have been so successful that people have never seen the disease and don’t understand the danger,” Mills said. “Some parents are more worried about the vaccine than the disease.”
Mainstream research has yet to establish a connection between autism and vaccines, and the majority of public health experts and pediatricians recommend vaccines to protect children from polio, mumps, tetanus, pertussis and other infectious diseases. Pertussis boosters also are recommended for teens and adults.