Gregoire, Cantwell get involved in whooping cough epidemic

OLYMPIA — Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire opened an emergency fund Thursday to help contain a spreading whooping cough epidemic, and officials urged residents to get vaccinated against an illness that particularly threatens infants.

And, this morning, State Secretary of Health Mary Selecky and U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell planned to ask the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to send in a special team to help contain the epidemic.

Gregoire is making $90,000 in crisis cash available to help strengthen a public awareness campaign about the need for the pertussis vaccination. The state Department of Health is already looking to spend about $200,000 on the effort.

The state has also received approval from the federal government to divert some federal cash toward the purchase of 27,000 doses of the whooping cough vaccine. Those will be available for uninsured residents.

Pertussis, or whooping cough, is a highly contagious respiratory illness spread by coughing and sneezing. Infants are particularly vulnerable to whooping cough because they can’t be immunized before 4 to 6 weeks.

So far this year, 20 children under the age of 1 have been hospitalized for whooping cough, according to state data. Last year, two babies in Washington died from the illness.

In Grays Harbor, Public Health Director Joan Brewster says that in the past six months, five infants and one teenager have been reported with whooping cough, resulting in hospitalizations of the tiny babies and containment of the disease among family members.

Babies often get the illness from adults and family members because the shots children get wear off over time. Officials want residents — especially those who spend time around babies — to get a whooping cough booster, called a Tdap. Brewster calls it “immunizing the herd” around the child. Brewster is also calling on pregnant women to get immunized because the vaccination on the mother is often passed on to the newborn, who is too young to get his or her own shots.

Washington has already recorded 1,132 cases of whooping cough this year — about 10 times more than the same time last year, according to disease investigators at the Department of Health. The state is recording more than 400 cases of pertussis each month — four times more than the threshold that state officials consider “epidemic” levels — and Washington is on pace for as many as 3,000 cases in 2012.

Brewster said that kind of rate hasn’t been seen for 60 years.

Selecky and the state’s top scientists planned to brief Cantwell today about the situation during a tour of the laboratories where doctors and researchers are leading the state’s whooping cough response, according to a press release from Cantwell’s Office.

A CDC Epidemic Aid investigation – or “Epi-Aid”– would help Washington state health staff intensify the response to the disease and also help identify why the epidemic is growing so quickly, Cantwell’s Office said. With this information, the state Department of Health could focus vaccination programs, public education and other resources more efficiently and effectively to fight back against the epidemic.

“In my 13 years as secretary this is the first time I’ve had to use the word ‘epidemic’ about disease in our state,” Selecky said.

Health officials say only about 10 percent of cases are typically reported, so the number tabulated by state officials show only a fraction of the total cases statewide.

Skagit County is somewhat of an epicenter this year, with more than 200 cases. That’s a rate about three times higher than the next nearest county — Jefferson.

The public awareness campaign will include a radio ad airing statewide, as well as public service announcements, said Health Department spokesman Tim Church. Officials also plan advertisements on Facebook and Google, and they are exploring bus and billboard ads.