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by Christine Adler


Whooping cough, or pertussis as it is formally known, has made a local resurgence this year. Thirty-two cases in Westchester and 31 in Putnam County, the majority of them children and the youngest just three weeks old, have caused the medical community to reach out to parents and set the record straight on this serious illness. According to the New York State Department of Health, pertussis is caused by a germ that lives in the mouth, nose, and throat. It is spread to others through coughing or sneezing. Initially, symptoms resemble those of a common cold, including sneezing, runny nose, low-grade fever, and mild cough. But within two weeks, the cough becomes coughing spasms that are usually accompanied by a high-pitched “whoop” sound. These spasms may last for one to two months, tend to be violent (sometimes causing vomiting), and are more frequent at night. The single most effective control measure against this disease is maintaining the highest possible level of immunization in the community. Because pertussis is highly contagious, before widespread immunization it was a major cause of death in infants and young children. Dr. Joshua Lipsman, Westchester County’s health commissioner, said that the increase in cases being diagnosed is a “true outbreak” and requires preventive measures. Dr. Lipsman believes people who had not been vaccinated started the resurgence. For Dr. Peter Acker, a pediatrician in Rye Brook and a member of the Westchester County Medical Society, the resurgence is particularly distressing. Having many young infants in his charge who are most susceptible to the devastating effects of this infection, he knows how serious the illness can be. That it is making a comeback is all the more disturbing since there is a safe, effective preventive vaccine available. Though the majority of people in Dr. Acker’s practice are immunized, there are a few who choose not to be vaccinated. “Unfortunately, the very success of our immunization programs has engendered a feeling of complacency toward many of our ancient scourges such as measles, and diphtheria,” says Dr. Acker. “Who remembers that in 1900 in the United States, approximately five out of every 1,000 infants died of pertussis before their fifth birthday?” Why do some choose not to be vaccinated? The old pertussis vaccine has had a bad rap for years because of concern over possible neurological side-effects. However, Dr. Acker stresses that there was never a definitive link made between the vaccine and these adverse reactions to begin with, and that such cases are even more rare than once believed. Also it is important to know that the current acellular pertussis vaccine is a considerable improvement over the previous cellular vaccine, and has a very low incidence of even mild reactions. New York is one of seven states in the country that do not require pertussis vaccinations before starting school. However, doctors are urging all parents to vaccinate their children if they haven’t already done so, and to seek medical care if they notice the symptoms. “As a community, we need to push harder than ever for complete immunization of the whole population,” says Dr. Acker. “It is our youngest and most innocent of citizens who will suffer from our failure to do so.” For more information on pertussis, call the Health Department at (914) 813-5000 or visit www.westchestergov.com/health. A recording of the typical cough associated with the disease can be heard on the website.


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