How to spot whooping cough spreading in Fayette County, KY

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Though public schools in Fayette County won’t start back until Aug. 16, the health department reports whooping cough is already spreading in Lexington.

Kevin Hall, spokesman for the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department, told the Herald-Leader Thursday the agency has detected a handful of cases.

This highly contagious disease, marked by the symptomatic hacking cough seen in adults and adolescents, is particularly dangerous for babies and pregnant women. Here’s what to know about whooping cough in Kentucky.

The Herald-Leader has reached out to Kentucky’s public health agency Friday for comment about whooping cough cases outside of Fayette County, but has not received a response.

What is whooping cough?

Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is a highly contagious respiratory tract infection that is bacterial in nature. It gets its name from the characteristic hacking cough symptomatic of the disease, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Before the advent of a vaccine, it was considered a childhood disease. Now, it’s associated more often with children who are too young to have completed the full course of vaccinations required for protection and adults whose immunity has waned.

Though deaths are rare, according to the Mayo Clinic, they most commonly occur in infants, which is why it’s important for pregnant women and those who take care of young children to be vaccinated.

What are the symptoms of whooping cough?

Apart from its characteristic “whooping” cough, symptoms resemble a cold and include a runny nose, nasal congestion, red and watery eyes and fever. These initial symptoms appear between seven to 10 days after infection, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The more severe symptoms, like vomiting, extreme fatigue and difficulty breathing, appear after a week or two.

Even though pertussis is associated with a violent cough, many people never develop it, according to the Mayo Clinic. A persistent cough is only a sign an adolescent or adult has pertussis. Babies may not cough at all. Instead, they may struggle to breathe or temporarily stop breathing all together.

Whooping cough cases in Fayette County

LFCHD’s Hall told the Herald-Leader in an email Thursday the agency is aware of fewer than five cases of whooping cough in the county.

“Pertussis is a highly contagious respiratory illness spread by coughing and sneezing. It affects people of all ages but can be most serious in infants and those with chronic diseases,” Hall wrote in the statement.

The health department urges those who are at high risk for pertussis to take preventative antibiotics in the event of an exposure. According to Hall, this includes people with chronic illnesses or weakened immune systems, pregnant women and infants.

If your child does show symptoms of whooping cough, keep them home from school or day care and call your doctor even if they’ve previously been vaccinated. If the case is probable or confirmed pertussis, children should remain home until they finish taking their antibiotics, Hall said.

What’s the childhood vaccination rate for whooping cough in KY?

As explained by the Cleveland Clinic, there are two types of whooping cough/pertussis vaccines. They are the initial DTaP and the booster Tdap shots.

The first variety, the DTaP vaccines, protect young children from diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. According to the clinic, by the age of 7, a child will have received five shots of the pertussis vaccine.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends infants and children be given all five doses of the vaccine before age 6. The recommendation is for one dose each administered at the following age interval: 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 15 through 18 months and the final dose sometime between ages 4 and 6.

Additionally, preteens, teens and adults should get their Tdap booster vaccines every 10 years, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

So how are Kentucky children doing? According to the Immunize Kentucky Coalition, citing state immunization registry data from 2020, the rate of children who have received all five DTaP doses by age 6 varies widely across Kentucky, from 10.52% on the low end 38.68% on the high end.

Jefferson County, Kentucky’s most populated county, also has the lowest five-dose DTaP vaccination rate in the state, with just 10.52% of 6-year-olds having received all five doses.

The highest, at 38.68%, is Grayson County in the southwest portion of the state.

Fayette County falls somewhere in the middle, roughly speaking. There, 19.61% of 6-year-olds have received five doses of the DTaP vaccine, giving them a high rate of protection against pertussis until their preteens, when immunity begins to wane and a booster dose is recommended.

Data from Kentucky’s immunization registry displayed in a data visualization by Angela Taylor of the Kentucky Cabinet of Health and Family Services.
Data from Kentucky’s immunization registry displayed in a data visualization by Angela Taylor of the Kentucky Cabinet of Health and Family Services. Immunize Kentucky Coaltion.

Nationwide, vaccine rates for measles, polio, diphtheria and other highly contagious diseases have been declining, according to CNN. This is a problem, not just because it means more children are at risk for severe yet easily-preventable illnesses, but also because it puts entire communities at risk.

When the number of unvaccinated individuals goes up in a community, so does the risk for the most vulnerable, including babies too young to be vaccinated and people for whom the vaccine doesn’t work as well. That could include cancer patients who are receiving chemotherapy, for example, per the CNN report.

This story may be updated.

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Aaron Mudd is a service journalism reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader, Centre Daily Times and Belleville News-Democrat. He is based at the Herald-Leader in Lexington, Kentucky.
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