Health beat: '100-day cough' is hard to shake

  • Article by: MAURA LERNER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 17, 2012 - 5:37 PM

It's been 70 years since the vaccine against whooping cough became widely available. Yet the illness -- known for its distinctive coughing fits -- still poses a risk to kids, as parents in Shakopee learned this week. Three junior high students came down with confirmed cases, prompting the school to send a letter home alerting families.

In spite of medicine's best efforts, whooping cough has stubbornly refused to disappear. So far this year, more than 600 cases have been reported in Minnesota -- the number has bounced between 200 and 1,500 a year for more than a decade. Typically, teenagers and adults account for more than half of those cases, according to the health department.

"Three cases is not an unusual situation," said Claudia Miller, an epidemiologist at the Minnesota Department of Health. "Which is a little frustrating, given that it is a vaccine-preventable disease.

"What's particularly concerning is that we're seeing more outbreaks in older elementary and junior high age kids," Miller said.

As contagious diseases go, whooping cough -- or pertussis -- doesn't carry the sense of alarm it did generations ago. But it can still be dangerous, even deadly, to infants and young children who might be exposed to it.

One reason whooping cough is still spreading is that childhood vaccines wear off by early adolescence, Miller said. That's why experts recommend a booster shot (known as Tdap) by seventh grade; as well as for adolescents or adults who haven't had one.

The symptoms can start out like a cold: sneezing, runny nose, fever and a cough that doesn't go away. After a week or two, the coughing fits can get so bad they leave children breathless.

Whooping cough is treatable with antibiotics. But the cough can linger for months -- it's been called the "100-day cough."

To hear what the distinctive cough sounds like, go to www.startribune.com/a1284.

maura.lerner@startribune.com

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