Dr. Catherine Elliott, Yukon’s deputy chief medical officer of health, says a whooping cough outbreak that started in June could spread in schools among unvaccinated children. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News)

As school returns, Whitehorse still in midst of whooping cough outbreak

74 cases reported since June

A whooping cough outbreak which began in June has not yet abated, putting unvaccinated children at risk now that school is back in session, health officials say.

The territory is “still in the midst of an outbreak” of whooping cough, said Dr. Catherine Elliott, Yukon’s deputy chief medical officer of health. There is “the potential to spread in schools and work as people return” from summer breaks and vacations, she said.

“Whether or not we see a second wave in the schools, it’s hard to say.”

There have been 74 reported cases of whooping cough so far, she said, with most cases centred in Whitehorse. There have been no hospitalizations related to the outbreak.

Whooping cough outbreaks tend to occur naturally every three to four years, she said. The last outbreak occurred in 2012, with 43 confirmed cases.

Whooping cough is a highly contagious bacterial infection of the throat and lungs. The disease is airborne and spreads when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Symptoms usually appear seven to 10 days following exposure and are cold-like, including sneezing, runny nose, mild cough and low-grade fever. During the next one to two weeks, the coughing becomes worse, progressing to lengthy and often severe fits that end in a tell-tale ‘whooping’ sound when the infected person inhales. Coughing bouts may so bad that they may cause people to gag, spit up a thick, clear mucus, or vomit. The illness can last as long as two months.

While this unpleasant for adults, it can be especially severe in infants and young children, Elliott said.

“It can be very difficult in young children,” said Elliott. “Very young children and babies can have episodes where they just stop breathing.”

Every year in Canada, one to three people die from whooping cough, mainly infants and people with compromised immune systems who have not been vaccinated, she said.

Elliott said the health department expects to see new cases related to classroom transmission. The disease can spread with as little as five minutes of face-to-face interaction or one hour of being in the same room with an infected person and is infectious even before the cough fully develops, she said.

Children who have been diagnosed with whooping cough should be taken out of school and remain at home until they have had at least five days of treatment with antibiotics, she said.

While “washing hands is even more important now than ever,” Elliott said, “the best way to protect against (whooping cough) is to get immunized.”

The vaccine commonly used to protect against whooping cough is called Tdap, which also protects against tetanus and diphtheria. As the News has previously reported, the Tdap vaccine is effective but does not provide life-long protection, and so more than one vaccine is required to maintain immunity over a person’s lifetime.

To arrange a vaccination or for more information on whooping cough, contact the Whitehorse Health Centre.

Contact Lori Garrison at lori.garrison@yukon-news.com