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Whooping cough confirmed in Jacksonville-area toddler

Pertussis, better known as whooping cough, has been confirmed in a 15-month-old child who lives in the Jacksonville area, and at least two other youngsters have symptoms that strongly suggest pertussis, said Viki Brown, director of public health services for Jackson County.

Pertussis can be deadly for young children and infants, but otherwise-healthy adults can eventually overcome the bacteria that causes the disease. Unfortunately, they may be contagious during the early stages of their illness and pass the disease to others.

Brown said Monday that this "adult reservoir" of bacteria is often the source of new cases among youngsters.

She said cases of pertussis are particularly troubling for public health officials because children can be immunized against it. She said the child who fell ill had not been immunized.

Pertussis can be difficult to diagnose in its early stages because it has many of the same symptoms as a common cold at the onset, but the cough of pertussis persists long after a cold should have ended.

"The cough is just amazing," Brown said. "It doesn't even sound human, and it goes on and on and on."

She said it makes sense to seek medical treatment when cold symptoms drag on for what seems like too long.

"People need to be aware that not every cold is just a cold," she said. "Seeking medical attention for a persistent cough is reasonable."

Jackson County had a major outbreak of pertussis in 2003, when 135 cases were recorded. That number fell to just six in 2004, 21 in 2005 and six in 2006. There were no reported cases in Jackson County in 2001 or 2002.

The incidence of pertussis seems to rise and fall in cycles, and physicians aren't quite sure why, said Dr. Paul Cieslak, medical director of the immunization program for the Oregon Department of Human Services. What's clear, however, is that immunization is an effective way to reduce the number of people who fall ill.

In recent years more adolescents and adults have been diagnosed with pertussis, leading researchers to conclude that the immunity provided by childhood vaccination fades with time.

"The vaccine (for pertussis) is not one of our best vaccines," Cieslak said, noting that the measles vaccine provides something like 90 percent immunity for life, while the pertussis vaccine seems to provide about 80 percent immunity for three to five years.

Cieslak said a new pertussis vaccine licensed for use in 2005 strengthens immunity, and has been approved for use for people between the ages of 11 and 64. The Tdap vaccine (for tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis) is now routinely given to people who need a tetanus booster.

"We're hoping the vaccine is going to slow down the disease and reduce transmission," he said.

He encouraged parents to vaccinate their children against pertussis, and get themselves vaccinated, too, if they haven't had the Tdap immunization.

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail bkettler@mailtribune.com.