San Luis Obispo County has seen 210 of approximately 900 confirmed, probable or suspect cases of pertussis, or “whooping cough,” in the state so far this year, according to San Luis Obispo Public Health Services.
As of Wednesday, no related deaths have been reported in the county.
The county had 19 pertussis cases during the past two years. San Luis Obispo Public Health Services epidemiologist Ann McDowell, MPH, said outbreaks usually happen every three to four years because the susceptible population grows.
“We’re on pace to have one of the worst outbreaks in 50 years. This is an ugly one,” McDowell said. “We’ve had cases from people as young as 10 weeks and as old as 91 years.”
The California Department of Public Health clinical case definition of pertussis is “a cough or illness lasting at least two weeks with one of the following: paroxysms of coughing, inspiratory ‘whoop’ or post-tussive vomiting without other apparent cause.”
The “whooping” sound is a result of loss of breath from coughing so hard.
“Pertussis is a miserable disease,” McDowell said. “You cough and hack.”
Public Health Services test for pertussis by taking a swab that will be examined in laboratory tests; the swab test is the only way to be diagnosed with pertussis.
McDowell said treating infants is top priority for health officials; only two local infants were hospitalized to date. Infants are most susceptible because they haven’t received all of their booster shots, which are usually received at six months and prevent the disease.
However, infants aren’t the only ones in need of the booster shot. Anyone 11 years or older should have a tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis, or Tdap, booster shot because childhood vaccinations wear off in adulthood, McDowell said. One Tdap vaccination as an adult will protect someone for the rest of their life. The Tdap vaccination has no known serious side-effects.
“The best offense (to pertussis) is a strong defense – in this case, having been immunized,” said David Harris, MD, head of medical services at Cal Poly.
Harris roughly estimates 10 percent of Cal Poly students have no immunity against pertussis or other diseases.
“It’s a very, very difficult situation to keep everybody healthy because you [students] like to share your bugs,” Harris said. “On top of that, you’re stressed, you’re packed like sardines and you can’t afford to stay home and recuperate… so you go to school sick and germs are shared.”
Biochemistry junior Doug Amato recalls feeling at risk for illnesses and disease when he lived with 32 other men on one floor of the Sierra Madre dorm two years ago.
“If one person got sick, usually everyone got sick,” Amato said.
Harris said a campus-wide pertussis epidemic is unlikely during summer because the students get “out of this packed, herdlike existence.”
In the event of an outbreak, the San Luis Obispo Public Health Services would take over campus health.
Cal Poly Health Center offers the Tdap vaccination for $35; San Luis Obispo Public Health Services charges $25. No appointment is needed at either location.