Cases of whooping cough continue to rise in Maine as children head off to summer camps, potentially spreading the highly contagious disease to new groups of children.
Over the last two weeks, the total number of whooping cough cases reported in Maine this year has jumped from 158 to 207. At this time last year, the state had recorded 66 cases of the respiratory disease.
While the outbreak is still hitting Somerset and Cumberland counties the hardest, recent data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention show Aroostook, Sagadahoc and Oxford counties recording their first cases of the year.
Most of the whooping cough, or pertussis, in Maine has struck middle-school-aged children. Health officials have sent letters to the state’s summer camps with information about pertussis, hoping to head off further spread of the disease, according to state epidemiologist Dr. Stephen Sears.
“We haven’t seen [a case of pertussis] out of a camp yet, but it doesn’t mean we won’t,” he said. “It’s the right age group.”
The bacterial illness can spread through the coughing and sneezing of an infected person, especially in close quarters. Health officials are concerned that the outbreak could widen as children from unaffected areas of the state mix with children from other regions that have been exposed to whooping cough.
The best way to prevent the illness is to get vaccinated, according to health officials.
Maine’s outbreak may be easing. Cases of the illness are still on the rise, but the increase appears to be less dramatic with each passing week, Sears said.
Still, Maine’s not out of the woods. Some symptoms were spotted by school officials who urged them to see a doctor, but now that classes are out for the summer, reporting of some cases may be delayed or hampered, he said.
“All it takes is one kid in one county” to spread pertussis, Sears said. “That one kid may have been sick for several days and exposed other children before they get diagnosed.”
Whooping cough is on the rise nationally. Washington state has declared an epidemic of pertussis with more than 2,700 cases this year, the most in at least three decades.
Most alarming to health officials is the spread of whooping cough among babies. The unrelenting cough can rob them of oxygen and lead to brain damage and even death. The disease has struck seven Maine children under the age of six months this year. All have survived, but several were hospitalized, Sears said.
Children too young to be vaccinated against pertussis 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.
Some children may get an initial shot, but never go back to complete the series. It’s estimated that only 60 percent of children get the required booster shot at age 11.
Still others catch whooping cough despite being immunized. The vaccine wears off over time, but still slashes the risk of catching and spreading the disease and generally leads to a milder case.
Older children and adults are advised to get pertussis booster shots along with their tetanus immunizations.