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Health

Kansas Seeing Fewer Pertussis Cases This Year

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Kansas appears on track for a quiet year for pertussis cases after two years marked by outbreaks.

As of mid-April, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment had recorded eight cases of pertussis. There were 412 cases in 2014 and 431 cases in 2015, meaning the state is likely to have fewer cases this year unless a major outbreak hits in the next few months.

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Pertussis, or whooping cough, is a highly contagious disease that causes a persistent cough. In severe cases, the coughing fits can become violent, with a characteristic “whooping” sound. It typically is more severe in infants and people with compromised immune systems.

Nick Baldetti, director of the Reno County Health Department, said last year’s outbreak started in mid-April in elementary schools. It spread to other parts of the community during the summer, then to additional schools when students returned to the classroom, he said. Reno County had 101 pertussis cases in 2015, but has none so far this year.

The Reno County Health Department appointed an “incident commander” last year to coordinate its response to pertussis, allowing other workers to continue focusing on their areas of expertise, Baldetti said. It also reached out to teachers about the importance of identifying students who might be infected and set up community clinics to vaccinate children in the “hot zone” of infection, he said.

“All sides were hyper-vigilant in trying to get ahead of this,” he said.

Shelly Schneider, administrator of the Barton County Health Department, said a 2015 outbreak there began in the winter, when an infant died of pertussis. It later showed up in schools. Most of those diagnosed with pertussis hadn’t been vaccinated, she said.

Residents responded to news about the outbreak by getting tested if they had symptoms, Schneider said. Large numbers of people also took advantage when the health department extended its vaccination clinic hours, she said.

“At one point we did have a line around the building,” she said.

Chris Steward, health protection director for the Sedgwick County Health Department, said the county had scattered cases of pertussis in 2015 but not a significant outbreak. Still, the health department did send letters to parents encouraging them to take their children to a doctor if they had a persistent cough, which helped prevent more exposures, she said.

Pertussis is “cyclical,” Steward said, and while the number of cases rises and falls, the disease doesn’t go away. A higher number of cases in certain years may be driven partly by increased awareness that motivates people to get their cough checked out, she said.

“We know there’s pertussis in the community, but it’s whether they’re getting tested and diagnosed,” she said.

Baldetti said the health department encourages Reno County residents to get booster shots for pertussis regularly because the vaccine loses its effectiveness over time. Doing so can protect people who can’t receive the vaccine because of their compromised immune systems and babies too young to get it, he said.

“A lot of people were under the assumption that they had received a booster 15 years ago and they were good,” he said.

Megan Hart is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team. You can reach her on Twitter @meganhartMC

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