Joel Krahn/Yukon News Dr. Brendan Hanley, the Yukon’s chief medical officer of health, says whooping cough infections can go undetected in adults.

New whooping cough cases prompt Yukon health officials to call for vaccinations

Infectious disease is especially dangerous for infants

A half-dozen recent cases of whooping cough in the territory have doctors urging people, especially pregnant women, to make sure their vaccinations are up to date.

Yukon’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Brendan Hanley, said that while the disease is merely unpleasant in adults, it can be more serious in young children, especially infants. For this reason, pregnant women should have a pertussis vaccination during their third trimester, he said, in order to pass on antibodies to their child and give them some protection before they are born.

Whooping cough is also known as pertussis.

“Young babies are most at risk from complications of pertussis,” the Yukon health department said in a press release June 27. “New mothers who were not updated in pregnancy should also be updated to protect their infants.”

The vaccine commonly used to vaccinate against whooping cough is called Tdap, which also protects against tetanus and diphtheria. The health department said Tdap is “considered safe to give in pregnancy.”

Pertussis infection in adults may “easily go undetected,” said Hanley.

“It’s quite probable that many cases do (go undetected),” he said. “Which is why, even if we see just one case, we take that seriously.”

Hanley said the cases recently seen in the Yukon are unrelated, meaning the infected patients did not have contact with each other and likely did not contract the disease from each other. This indicates the infection is spreading within the community, he said.

So far all cases have been confined to the Whitehorse area, Hanley said, but that is likely to change.

Schools in the Yukon closed for the summer June 20, so risk of infection through the school system is not currently a high concern, said Jason Mackey, a spokesperson for the Department of Education.

“The health of our students and staff are always first priority…. But schools are out right now,” Mackey said.

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.

Complications from whooping cough can include secondary pneumonia, especially in peeople with compromised immune systems, asthma or other breathing problems, said Hanley.

If you suspect you or your child has whooping cough, you should speak to a health care professional. Antibiotics may be required, said Hanley, which reduces the infectiousness of the disease. A simple swab test — similar to the one administered to confirm flu infection — can identify whooping cough.

Having already had whooping cough does not protect against new infections, the health department said. Previous vaccination, unless recent, does not mean a person is 100 per cent immune either, said Hanley, because the protection offered by the vaccine is relatively short-lived.

“You know how some people say, ‘I have a good memory, it’s just short?’ The (pertussis) vaccine is like that — it’s very effective but doesn’t have a long shelf life,” Hanley said.

Aside from pregnant women, the health department is also recommending health care workers, day care staff and teachers be vaccinated.

The vaccine is available at Whitehorse Health Centre, the Kwanlin Dün Health Centre and community health centres, Hanley said.

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