BANGOR, Maine — When her 14-year-old daughter started coughing about a month ago, Bangor mother Anne assumed it was allergies. As it turned out, the girl was infected with whooping cough, a highly contagious respiratory illness that surged in Maine in 2012 and has public health officials on the alert again this year.
Anne, who asked to be referred to only by her middle name to protect her daughter’s privacy, said she wanted to warn other parents about the illness, which often starts with run-of-the-mill symptoms including sneezing and a runny nose. The characteristic “whooping” sound that results when infected people gasp for air typically doesn’t appear until later in the illness, sometimes called the “100-day cough.”
Anne’s daughter’s only symptoms initially were a minor sore throat and regular cough, she said. Whooping cough, or pertussis, was “the furthest thing from my mind,” Anne said. The girl is now being treated with a second round of antibiotics.
“Her cough has her running to a toilet to vomit, she cannot breathe,” Anne said.
Over-the-counter cough suppressants are largely ineffective against whooping cough.
“She went at least two weeks where she was unable to sleep because of the cough,” the mother said.
Maine recorded 737 cases of whooping cough in 2012, more than triple the cases in 2011 and ranking Maine seventh-highest nationally per capita, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
So far in 2013, 164 cases of the illness have been reported in Maine, a rate that’s tracking similarly to 2012. Last year, whooping cough began to pick up in late spring, peaking during late summer and early fall. Most cases occurred in middle school-aged children.
The spike in Maine mirrored a national trend. Washington state declared an epidemic of pertussis last year with more than 2,500 cases, the most in at least three decades. The illness can occur during any time of year.
Parents shielding their kids from vaccinations was cited by health officials as just one driver behind last year’s pertussis outbreak. Some children may get the initial shot in a series that starts at two months of age, but never go back to complete the shots. Only about 60 percent of kids get the required booster shot at age 11.
Anne’s daughter was fully vaccinated, as well as several other kids at her school who were sickened by whooping cough, the mother said.
The whooping cough vaccine is about 60 to 70 percent effective, explained Dr. Stephen Sears, state epidemiologist. A previous formulation, phased out in the U.S. during the 1990s, was more effective but carried serious side effects, including high fevers.
The pertussis vaccine wears off over time, but health officials still urge inoculation because it slashes the risk of catching and spreading the disease and generally leads to a milder case, he said. Older kids, adults and pregnant women also are advised to get pertussis booster shots along with their tetanus immunization.
“You still get benefit from it,” Sears said.
The illness is especially dangerous for infants, who can run out of oxygen from ferocious coughing fits, potentially leading to seizures, brain damage and in some cases death. Children too young for the shots or who haven’t built up enough immunity often catch the disease from a loved one who was never vaccinated or failed to stay current with booster shots and could be unaware they have the illness.
People with whooping cough usually spread the disease by coughing or sneezing while in close contact with others, who breathe in the pertussis bacteria.
Sears advised parents to be on the lookout for whooping cough, which can be difficult to distinguish from allergies, viruses and other common ailments in its early stages.
“If a cough looks anything out of the ordinary or is lasting a little longer, they should probably go and see [a health care provider],” he said. “If they think they’ve been exposed, they should go sooner, but a lot of times you don’t know you’ve been exposed.”
The disease could further spread as children participate in summer camps, sports leagues and other activities involving close contact. Children should be especially sure to get the booster shot before returning to school in the fall, Sears said. The booster vaccination takes full effect in about two weeks.
“We’re seeing pertussis all over this summer,” Sears said. “Kids get together with kids, and they have camps and sleepovers and all that sort of stuff.”
Pertussis is treated with antibiotics, which do little to alleviate coughing fits that can last up to three months, but greatly reduce the likelihood of spreading the disease to others.