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Eight Manitoba kids hospitalized with whooping cough

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Eight Manitoba children were hospitalized this spring after multiple northern First Nations were hit by a sudden spike in whooping cough.

Provincial health officials confirmed there's been a recent upswing in the number of reported cases of pertussis, also known as whooping cough. A total of 34 cases have been reported so far this year, including at least 16 confirmed cases in First Nations communities within the boundaries of the Burntwood Regional Health Authority in April and May. Officials confirmed eight children under five were hospitalized with whooping cough.

The highly contagious respiratory disease can cause a severe cough that leads to vomiting, problems breathing, seizures and, in rare cases, brain damage and death. It can be particularly severe for infants and children, which is why health officials recommend all infants get vaccinated against the disease at two months, four months, six months and 18 months.

Manitoba's chief medical officer Dr. Joel Kettner said more than one northern First Nation community saw an increase in cases, but officials cannot disclose the specific communities due to privacy. He said no one died, and some children who fell ill had been immunized against whooping cough, while others weren't.

Kettner said officials responded by beefing up vaccinations in the affected communities and offering anyone who came into contact with an infected case a course of antibiotics. He said the number of actual cases of whooping cough may be higher, since only confirmed cases who sought medical treatment are reported to officials.

"We still have more work to do to improve vaccination rates," Kettner said. "It's one of the factors why we still see and will continue to see pertussis and other vaccine-preventable diseases."

Vaccination rates among Manitoba First Nations are generally much lower than the provincial average. Sixty per cent of First Nations children were vaccinated against whooping cough by age one -- compared to the provincial rate of 80 per cent.

Health Canada, the federal branch responsible for First Nations' health on reserves, sent an email statement saying it "supports the efforts of First Nation communities to enhance their immunization programs."

While lower vaccine uptake could be one of the reasons behind the increase in cases, Kettner cautioned the vaccine is not 100 per cent effective and immunity wears off over time.

Widespread vaccination programs to protect against whooping cough were first introduced across Canada in the 1940s, but over time the proportion of the population susceptible to the disease can increase because they were not immunized, or the protection wears off. Kettner said that can cause periodic increases in illness, noting Manitoba experienced a higher number of whooping cough cases between 2002 and 2004, when the province recorded between 56 and 82 cases. Over the last few years, he said, that number has dropped between 12 and 33 annually.

Health officials reminded Manitobans to ensure their vaccinations are up-to-date. "We'll have to watch very closely if that's what happens with pertussis," Kettner said.

On Sept. 2, the Public Health Agency of Canada issued a travel health notice about a seven-fold increase in the number of whooping cough cases reported in California this year. Other U.S. states have reported increases, but the notice said no state other than California has seen state-wide spikes in the disease.

jen.skerritt@freepress.mb.ca

Going through whoops

What is pertussis?

The most commonly reported vaccine-preventable disease, also known as whooping cough. It can cause severe coughing spells. It gets its name from the "whoop" sound people often make as they struggle to breathe through intense coughing fits. Symptoms of whooping cough can last between six and 12 weeks.

How is it spread?

A person can contract whooping cough if they inhale airborne droplets from an infected person who is coughing or sneezing, or through direct contact with their nose or throat discharge.

--Source: Health Canada

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 11, 2010 A8

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