Whooping Cough: 'My baby was dying in front of my eyes'

Whooping Cough: 'My baby was dying in front of my eyes'

BOISE, Idaho (KBOI) - A whooping cough epidemic is sweeping the northwest, and Idaho health care workers are fighting to make sure our case numbers stay down.

The number of whooping cough, or pertussis, cases varies each year, but one factor stays the same. The number of cases in Idaho is typically higher than the national average.

Heather Christensen knows the effects of whooping cough very well. She gave birth to twins in January of 2011, and at five weeks old one of her twin sons, Eli, contracted the disease. Her other twin, Austin, managed to stay healthy, but Eli was not as lucky.

"He couldn't breathe, he was congested, he was coughing, the doctor said if he turns blue, and is distressed, take him into the hospital," Heather recalled.

Little Eli was admitted to the hospital and spent weeks in the Intensive Care Unit. He was too young to receive his first vaccine for whooping cough and managed to catch the disease from his older sister. Even though Eli's sister was immunized, she still managed to bring whooping cough home.

"She brought it home and as a result, she had it, my mother had it, my father had it, it spread fast," Heather said.

Eli managed recover after weeks with a rescue mask for breathing and careful surveillance from hospital staff. Heather explained he is developmentally a little behind his brother due to his hospital stay. Eli also wore a corrective helmet for five months because his hospital stay affected the way his head developed.  | Need a Vaccination?

The Idaho Health and Welfare Department and Central District Health Department stress staying on top of vaccination schedules and making sure teens and adults receive their booster shots.

Dr. John Jambura has practiced in Boise nearly 30 years. In the past, you did not receive the pertussis vaccine past the age of seven, but that has changed.

"We are now vaccinating adolescent and adults. Which by the way is where 70 percent of the cases of pertussis that we find in the little kids come from," Jambura said.

"We are finding more and more that we may need to tighten up our schedule on vaccination, more than we did before so we can help fewer people susceptible especially in a place like Idaho where we have a continuing reservoir of unvaccinated individual."

According to the Health and Welfare Department, in the first quarter of 2012, which is January through March, Idaho confirmed 22 cases of whooping cough. Last year, during this time, 30 cases were confirmed and in 2010, there were 39 cases.

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Despite a decline in our statewide trend, the Gem state still soars above the national average. In 2011, the U.S. Average for cases was 4.88 percent. In Idaho, that number more than doubled at 12.25 percent.

Until recently, Idaho historically had some of the most lax immunization laws in the country. In the 2011 legislative session, lawmakers approved new immunization laws. The law requires more shots for kids going into kindergarten and seventh grade. Parents are still able to opt out of vaccines based on religious, medical or personal beliefs.

Washington is dealing with a very large pertussis outbreak. The state has documented more than a 1,000 cases since January.

Oregon is up to 121 cases, while Idaho's most current number is 31 cases. Idaho also documented the first whooping cough death this year on Friday, May 4th. A baby from Salmon died in a Salt Lake City hospital.



  • In 2010, 27,550 cases of pertussis (whooping cough) were reported in the U.S., but many more go undiagnosed and unreported.
  • Coughing fits due to pertussis infection can last  for up to 10 weeks or more; sometimes known as the "100 day cough."
  • Pertussis can cause serious illness in infants, children and adults and can even be life-threatening, especially in infants.
  • The most effective way to prevent pertussis is through vaccination with DTaP for infants and children and with Tdap for pre-teens, teens and adults — protection from the childhood vaccine fades over time.
  • Vaccinated children and adults can become infected with and transmit pertussis; however, disease is less likely to be severe.
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