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Alberta’s New Year Blues: Whooping Cough on the Loose

Cases of whooping cough are spreading across Alberta faster than a prairie fire in a windstorm. Most would be preventable with vaccines

Alberta had a rough start to the New Year with a whooping cough outbreak in southern Alberta. 

Cases are now increasing across the province at an alarming rate. 

The fingertips of someone with cyanosis | James Heilman

Pertussis, or whooping cough, gets its name from the high-pitched “whoop” sound made when breathing in, is a contagious respiratory illness caused by Bordetella pertussis

Early symptoms of pertussis include a runny or stuffy nose, low-grade fever, mild cough, and pauses in breathing, which can be life-threatening.

Another symptom of pertussis is cyanosis, a shortage of oxygen in the blood that causes the skin, lips, and nail beds to turn bluish. 

Symptoms of pertussis usually develop within ten days but can take as long as three weeks to build in some cases.

Pertussis is hard to recognize immediately because it can be mistaken for a common cold. 

But unlike a cold, coughing can last for weeks or even months. 

As the illness progresses, coughing fits become more common and severe. 

Later symptoms of pertussis also include vomiting after coughing fits, struggling to breathe, and feeling very tired after coughing fits. 

In rare cases, symptoms of pertussis can lead to serious complications like brain injury, seizures, and death. 

Babies one year and younger are at greater risk of these complications.

Are Low Vaccination Rates The Cause?

Through early December, there were 831 cases of pertussis in Alberta in 2023. 

That is much higher than any year since 2013, except for 2017. 

Craig Jenne, a professor at the University of Calgary | University of Calgary

2017 saw 1,054 cases of pertussis, which also started because of an outbreak in southern Alberta.

According to Craig Jenne, a professor in the Department of Microbiology, immunology, and Infectious Diseases at the University of Calgary, the number of cases in 2023 was predictable. 

“Because pertussis is so easily transmissible, we really need to see vaccination levels in the mid-90s to slow spread in the community,” said Jenne

Jenne claims that childhood vaccine numbers are as low as 30 percent in many rural areas across the province, far below what is needed to stop the spread of pertussis. 

Vaccination rates are very low in the south, where in 2023, less than three-fifths of children were up to date on their pertussis vaccines by age two. 

In the County of Forty Mile, only one-fifth of children were up to date on their pertussis vaccines in 2023. 

The provincial average for last year was just over 70 percent. 

So far, in the first few weeks of 2024, almost 400 cases of pertussis have been confirmed, nearly half the amount recorded for all of 2023. 

Just over 70 percent of these cases were in kids under 10. 

Almost 90 percent of these children were either not immunized or partially immunized. 

Less than a quarter of people in Alberta have received their annual flu shot, adding to a trend of low vaccination rates in the province
Less than a quarter of people in Alberta have received their annual flu shot, adding to a trend of low vaccination rates in the province | Pexels

Children Are Especially Vulnerable

Usually, pertussis is milder in teens and adults, especially those vaccinated against the illness. For babies and children, getting pertussis is much scarier. 

Babies and children are at greater risk because they are either too young to be vaccinated or have not had all of their shots. 

Of those victims who die, most are babies. 

Jenne claims the best way to keep babies and children safe is to make sure the people around them are immunized.

“When these little guys get sick, they can get very sick, and some have to get hospitalized. Tragically, we do lose Albertans to whooping cough,” commented Jenne. 

Prevention is the best medicine, but pertussis can be treated with antibiotics. 

Alberta Health Services recommends staying home for five days during the treatment period. 

The most recent cases of pertussis have been found in Pincher Creek, Lethbridge County, and Cardston County. 

According to Jenne, the pertussis outbreak isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. 

He believes vaccination campaigns are the best way to prevent the spread of the illness. 

People across the province are also dealing with a rise in cases of Group A Streptococcus, which causes many different infections in the body. 

We have a responsibility to protect our children. Jenn’s findings suggest that vaccinating ourselves and our children is the best way to do so.

Many babies with pertussis don't cough at all. Instead, the illness may cause them to turn blue to struggle to breathe
Many babies with pertussis don’t cough at all. Instead, the illness may cause them to turn blue to struggle to breathe

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