By Naomi Klouda
Homer topped state epidemiology charts this month as one of two Alaska towns with the highest number of reported whooping cough cases.
Juneau and Homer have a combined 140-some of the state’s 181 whooping cough cases.
Public Health Nurse Leslie Callaway said the Homer Public Health Center has seen more than 53 cases in the past six months. Juneau saw 80 reported cases for the same period.
It’s not too late to get a pertussis vaccine, Callaway said. Even upper Kenai Peninsula residents are urged to get vaccinated, especially the elderly, those suffering a respiratory illness and young children.
Homer and Juneau showing up with the highest number of cases may lead some to draw the conclusion that a coastal environment helps spread the bacteria. But physicians say that has nothing to do with it, said Public Health Spokesman Greg Wilkinson.
“There are three basic reasons. One is a lag time between childhood immunizations and getting revaccinated in your teen years. And two, it shows up in large populations of people who chose, for whatever reasons, to not get vaccinated,” Wilkinson said.
The third reason is that, “Pertussis is very contagious. It’s easily transmittable,” he said.
According to the Alaska Division of Public Health, 181 cases of pertussis were reported across the state between July 1 and Nov. 24. That compares with 65 statewide for the same period last year, Wilkinson said.
Juneau had one reported whooping cough case last year, he said. Anchorage and the Matanuska Valley reported about 35 cases total.
Kenai likewise has seen only a small cluster, public health officials report. The Homer reporting area covers communities from Nanwalek to Clam Gulch, though most were centered in Homer, Callaway said.
Health officials are finding that the vaccine mandated for children wears off. The CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics now recommend scheduling a Tdap shot at age 11 or 12, rather than waiting until age 14 to 16, as previously recommended.
Babies 2 months through children 4 to 6 years old are vaccinated against the whooping cough.
“Then the vaccine begins to wane 8 years or so later, at the time when the child is around 11 to 12 years old,” Callaway said.
Whooping cough then can make its way around classrooms.
“Those most vulnerable are babies under 1 year of age and people at risk for respiratory complications such as people on chemo-therapy, or those who have had their immune system compromised or organs transplanted. The most important thing is to be up to date so as to protect those vulnerable to infections,” she said.
Even people who are not vulnerable to the bacteria should be vaccinated to help prevent the spread of it, she advised. Using good cough etiquette helps, along with immediately consulting a doctor when symptoms occur. Homer resident Roy Hoyt attests that the coughing sickness is a bear to shake. After age 80, he came down with it a winter or so ago, he said.
“I was in and out of hospital for two months,” Hoyt said. “I had never gone through anything like that before.”
Hoyt had traveled Outside for a class reunion, and believed he contracted it “courtesy of Northwest Airlines.”
“I felt badly when I got home. I had a cough. Then by the next couple of days, I was immobilized,” he said.
Considered highly contagious at the time, Hoyt was hospitalized in an isolation unit.
“Kids can shake it, but someone 80 years old really suffers,” he said.