County faces costly epidemic of whooping cough

BOULDER — Boulder County is experiencing an epidemic of whooping cough this year — 103 cases — costing some families thousands of dollars in lost work time and hospital bills.

Whooping cough, or pertussis, can be fatal in babies, while its symptoms are similar to the common cold in adolescents and adults. An infant who catches the disease will incur $2,822 in medical costs on average, according to national statistics. Specific health care costs were not immediately available locally.

About 60 percent of Boulder County schoolchildren have been immunized for the highly contagious disease, said Sophia Yager, immunization coordinator at the Boulder County Public Health Department. A 90 percent vaccination rate is considered to be the amount required to achieve “herd immunity,” Yager said. The disease spreads through droplets in the air from a sick person’s coughs and sneezes.

“Our biggest concern right now, because there are such high numbers of pertussis, is small children and babies,” Yager said. “It’s very important that people are up to date on their immunizations and pertussis vaccination — both children and adults.”

The required childhood diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus, or DTaP, vaccination costs $20 to $25, and a child needs to receive five doses to be vaccinated, Yager said. The same vaccine for adolescents and adults is $35 to $40.

Boulder County has “underimmunized pockets” of residents who lack health immunizations, Yager said. Its number of reported cases through mid-September is close to 10 times the 11 reported cases on average in a typical year.

Still, Boulder County’s number of whooping cough cases this year is lower than those reported in other metro-area counties. Denver County has seen 138 cases so far this year, Jefferson County has had 136 and Adams County has had 135. Whooping cough is so named because of the “whooping” sound a person makes when trying to get air after a bout of coughing.

Parents must get their children immunized before they start kindergarten, but they can “opt out” of vaccinations, with 11 percent in the Boulder Valley School District choosing to do so, according to forms collected by the schools, Yager said. Parents do not have to explain their “opt-out” reason.

“Prevention is the best medicine,” Yager said. “It makes sense economically that the cost of immunization in preventing disease is far less than the cost of treatment.”

A state and national epidemic of the disease has health officials scrambling to get more people vaccinated as well, said Rachel Herlihy, immunization section chief at the Division of Disease Control and Environmental Epidemiology in the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. So far, 849 cases have been reported in the state since Jan. 1, while a typical year would see about 325 cases for the entire year, she said. Across the state, about 20 percent of infants who get whooping cough are hospitalized, Herlihy said.

“That’s a substantial expense,” Herlihy said. “You have so many costs to take into account. A lot of it is lost time from work. If your child gets sick, how many days of work do you lose? Also factor in antibiotics, doctor visits and emergency room visits.”

Pertussis epidemics spike every three to five years, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. The outbreak happening now could be the largest reported outbreak in 50 years, according to the website. The federal agency is encouraging adults to get booster shots, since recent studies show that childhood vaccinations lose effectiveness as a person ages.

The vaccine currently is given to babies at 2, 4 and 6 months, again at 15 to 18 months and again at 4 to 6 years old. The current DTaP vaccine replaced the former DTP vaccine in 2005, according to the CDC. The old vaccine caused severe side effects in some babies, including high fevers and seizures.

Across the nation, more than 25,000 cases were reported from Jan. 1 through the end of August, including 13 deaths, mostly in babies younger than 1 year old, according to the CDC. In 2010, 27,550 cases were reported for the entire year.

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