TAMPA — Local health officials say a combination of unknowing adults and a refusal to vaccinate is behind an outbreak of pertussis, or whooping cough, in Hillsborough County.
There have been 35 cases of the highly contagious respiratory disease since Jan. 1, compared with 31 in all of 2011, said Warren McDougle, epidemiology program manager for the Hillsborough County Health Department.
Hillsborough's tally also makes up more than 30 percent of the 112 cases in the entire state this year. Around Tampa Bay, Pasco County has had five cases, while Pinellas and Hernando counties haven't had any. Miami-Dade County has had the second-most cases in the state, with 17.
Seven families, spread throughout Hillsborough County, are responsible for a large portion of the cases. Among them is one family that does not believe in immunizations, McDougle said.
"That caused seven cases right there," he said.
The others involved adults who either had not been immunized or who had been given the vaccine so long ago that their protection from the disease had waned, he said.
The adults, in turn, came into contact with young children who were either too young to be immunized or not completely immunized.
Children receive the vaccine that protects them against pertussis, diphtheria and tetanus in five stages — at two months, four months, six months, between 15 and 18 months and between 4 and 6 years of age.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults — particularly those who come into contact with infants and small children — receive a vaccine booster dose every 10 years. The Hillsborough County Health Department offers the dose, known as Tdap (tetanus-diphtheria-pertussis), for $56, McDougle said. He recommends getting it at least two weeks before coming into contact with an infant or a small child.
Whooping cough might feel like an ordinary cough to adults, but it can result in severe consequences — even death — in very young children. According to the CDC, the disease usually starts with coldlike symptoms and maybe a mild cough or fever. Severe coughing can begin after one to two weeks and continue for weeks. More than half of infants younger than 1 year old who get the disease must be hospitalized.
Whooping cough is treated with antibiotics.
The Hillsborough cases have not resulted in any deaths this year. The last fatal case in the county was two years ago — a baby who caught it from the child's mother, McDougle said.
Other states are seeing increases as well. Outbreaks have occurred in North Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin, Montana and Washington state.
Health officials stress that getting diphtheria, tetanus or pertussis is much riskier than getting the vaccine. The vaccine can cause a mild fever or redness, swelling and soreness in the area where the shot is given.
McDougle said the Health Department spoke to the family that doesn't believe in immunizations.
"And they're still not big on immunization," he said. "If you have a firm disbelief, you're not always going to be able to change it."
Richard Martin can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3322.