BANGOR, Maine — The Maine Center for Disease Control urges diligence when it comes to vaccines and booster shots for the pertussis virus, which state epidemiologist Dr. Stephen Sears said has hit Penobscot and Piscataquis counties particularly hard.
Pertussis, which is known commonly as whooping cough, has afflicted 149 Mainers in 2011, though Sears said 96 of those cases have been in Penobscot County. That’s more cases than Maine has seen in several years.
“We’re seeing pertussis much more in the northern part of the state than elsewhere,” said Sears. “I think we’ll see more pertussis in Maine than we have in the last five years. It’s consistent with what’s happening in other parts of the country.”
Pertussis, which is a bacterial infection, usually starts with symptoms similar to the common cold, but is distinguishable by the deep “whooping” sound of the cough, which Sears said can become so severe that some patients verge on vomiting because they cough so hard. Children younger than 1 year old are especially susceptible to the illness, although Sears said the majority of the cases seen in Maine in the past several months were among middle school-age students.
“We don’t know all the reasons why this is happening,” said Sears.
Several schools in the Bangor and Brewer area have students afflicted with the illness. Six cases also have been reported in the Dexter area, according to a story published last week in the Bangor Daily News, and several students at Ridge View Community School in Dexter were being tested for the illness late last week.
Pertussis, the effects of which can last for several weeks, is transmitted through direct contact with an infected person’s respiratory secretions. It can be life-threatening, especially among infants.
Sears said vaccines normally administered to children younger than 6 prevent the illness and that most people receive a booster shot around age 11. As a preventative measure, he urged anyone 10 years old or older — including adults — to discuss with their physician whether it’s appropriate for the individual to receive a vaccine. But even those measures might not prevent the illness, which Sears said has shown up in some people who have received the vaccine.
“We sometimes think of vaccines as being 100 percent, but they’re not,” said Sears. “However we’ve found that in people who have had the vaccine, the cases are not typically as severe.”
Pertussis is fought with antibiotics and Sears said close friends and family members of a patient often are prescribed medicine to prevent the disease from spreading.
“Our main focus is trying to decrease the likelihood of a small child getting the disease,” said Sears.
“We are working with schools, health care providers and physicians,” he said. “We want to make sure that everyone understands this is increasing.”