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Alberta pediatricians sounding alarm over whooping cough: What to know about skyrocketing disease & symptoms

About 86 per cent of confirmed cases are from people who haven't been fully vaccinated from the disease.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

The number of whooping cough cases in 2023 were set to be some of the highest seen in Alberta in a decade. (Photo via Getty Images)
The number of whooping cough cases in 2023 were set to be some of the highest seen in Alberta in a decade. (Photo via Getty Images)

Alberta is sounding the alarm for residents to safeguard against pertussis — also known as whooping cough — following a surge in cases over recent months. The provinces has already recorded 120 cases in 2024 and provincial data highlights a stark vaccination gap between rural and urban areas.

Since November 2023, 17 cases have been reported in Okotoks, with one hospitalization, and all were locally acquired. Additionally, 22 cases have emerged in the Calgary Zone, bringing the areas total to 39.

The pertussis vaccine, free for children, pregnant women in their third trimester and adults needing a tetanus booster, also protects against tetanus and diphtheria. An alarming 86 per cent of Alberta cases occurred in those who are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated.

Dr. Cora Constantinescu, a pediatric infectious disease physician at Alberta Children's Hospital, stresses the importance of vaccinating vulnerable groups, especially infants, to prevent severe outcomes.

"Think hard about who in your family is vulnerable. Do you have a baby? That's a big deal when it comes to whooping cough in terms of mortality and severity of disease," Constantinescu told Global News. "You need to protect the baby and the best way is getting everybody vaccinated including pregnant women."

Do you have a baby? That's a big deal when it comes to whooping cough in terms of mortality and severity of disease.Dr. Cora Constantinescu, via Global News

Compared to recent years, there's a dramatically high number of whooping cough cases in Canada. In fact, the number of cases from 2023 were on track to be some of the highest in a decade, according to provincial reports.

Global News recently reported 70.73 per cent of Alberta children have a fourth dose of the pertussis vaccine by age two. Calgary had the highest rate at 80 per cent. "People used to talk about vaccines being victims of their own success because we don’t see these diseases – well now we are," Constantinescu told Global News.

Whooping cough is an easily transmittable disease, but is it something parents should be concerned about? Here's everything you need to know about pertussis.


What is whooping cough?

Pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough, is easily spread by coughing, sneezing or coming into contact with someone who is infected. (Photo via Getty Images)
Pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough, is easily spread by coughing, sneezing or coming into contact with someone who is infected. (Photo via Getty Images)

Whooping cough is a bacterial infection of the airways and lungs, according to Alberta Health Services. It was initially called the 100-day cough, since people with the disease may be coughing for months.

Known medically as pertussis, it's a disease that spreads easily by coughing, sneezing or coming into contact with someone who is infected. It's possible to contract whooping cough if you touch your eyes or face after touching objects that someone who is already infected touched, such as toys. Moreover the bacteria can survive on dry surfaces for two to six days.

The disease occurs year-round and causes serious coughing fits, often causing intense sounds that may force someone to sound like they're "whooping" in between breaths.


What are the symptoms of whooping cough? How can I tell if my child has it?

Prior to those serious coughing fits, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) notes whooping cough symptoms typically start with a mild fever, runny nose, red watery eyes and a cough. These initial symptoms may begin seven to 10 days after being infected with the bacteria, but might also appear up to 28 days after infection.

Symptoms may be less severe for older children and adults, and might seem like common cold symptoms with a cough that lasts longer than a week. In infants, symptoms may include a cough, feeding poorly, difficulty breathing and choking after coughing.


Is whooping cough deadly?

The coughing fits from pertussis may lead to difficulty breathing, choking and vomiting. Moreover, rare cases of whooping cough could lead to seizures, brain injury or even death, Alberta Health Services indicates. One to four deaths in Canada each year are related to pertussis, which are often babies who are too young to be immunized or children who weren't vaccinated.

For babies who have whooping cough, complications include vomiting after coughing, weight loss, pneumonia, convulsions and brain damage.

Whooping cough symptoms may begin like those of the common cold, including mild fever, runny nose, red watery eyes and a cough. (Photo via Getty Images)
Whooping cough symptoms may begin like those of the common cold, including mild fever, runny nose, red watery eyes and a cough. (Photo via Getty Images)

Who is at risk of whooping cough?

Between 1,000 and 3,000 people get sick with whooping cough each year in Canada, according to the federal public health agency. Across the world, there are roughly 20 to 40 million cases as well as 400,000 deaths each year due to the disease.

Whooping cough mostly affects babies who are too young to be vaccinated, or children between ages 11 and 18 who have waning immunization or none at all. The PHAC indicates the disease is most dangerous for babies under the age of one, especially if they're unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated.


How is whooping cough treated?

Whooping cough can only be diagnosed by a health care professional who will use laboratory results and assess symptoms. If you re not being treated, it's recommended to avoid all contact with other people. You should stay isolated for three weeks after your cough began, or until your cough ends.

If you're being treated, you will likely be taking antibiotics. If prescribed, they must be taken as directed. You should stay away from children and babies until completing five days of treatment with antibiotics.


Can you prevent whooping cough?

The best way to prevent whooping cough is to get vaccinated against the disease, which Alberta Health Services says is "safe and effective at preventing severe illness." For pregnant people, a Tdap vaccine (tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis) is recommended, which helps protect mothers and their babies, particularly during the first few months of their life.

Vaccines are then given in a four-dose series at two, four, six and, usually, 18 months of age. That's followed by a booster dose around the age a child enters school (roughly ages four to six), and then another booster around the ages of 14 and 16. Some provinces cover the cost of vaccination in adults older than age 18.

Moreover, you can prevent the spread of whooping cough by practicing regular hand washing, staying home when sick, covering your mouth when coughing, avoiding sharing food, drinks or cutlery as well as seeking early professional treatment when necessary.


What should I do if I think my child has whooping cough?

Each year, there are roughly 20 to 40 million cases of whooping cough around the world. (Photo via Getty Images)
Each year, there are roughly 20 to 40 million cases of whooping cough around the world. (Photo via Getty Images)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says if you think you or your child has whooping cough, it's best to see a doctor. Usually if your child is older, the course of recovery will take place at home. On top of taking antibiotics exactly as prescribed, there are few things parents can do to help alleviate the symptoms of whooping cough and manage its spread:

  • Avoid taking cough medicine unless recommended by a health care provider

  • Keep your home free of irritants, such as dust, smoke and chemical fumes

  • Use a clean, cool mist humidifier

  • Properly wash hands often with soap and water

  • Eat small meals every few hours to prevent vomiting

  • Consume plenty of fluids

The CDC also recommends you immediately notify your doctor of any signs of dehydration, which may include dry mouth, sleepiness, thirst, decreased urination, few tears while crying, muscle weakness, headache or lightheadedness.


When should I go to the hospital with whooping cough?

If symptoms become serious, then a person with whooping cough will need to be hospitalized. Many babies with whooping cough will also need hospital treatment, and hospitalization is almost always needed for babies under six months of age.

The McGill University Health Centre recommends going to the hospital if your child has whooping cough and the following occurs:

  • Develops a blue colour to their skin, particularly around the fingertips and mouth

  • Stops breathing, even for an instant

  • Has a high fever or seizures

  • Vomits often or becomes dehydrated

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