Health: FDA study helps explain the re-emergence of whooping cough

A new FDA study could help explain the re-emergence of whooping cough, a contagious disease that has claimed the lives of more children than scarlet fever, diphtheria or measles during its height, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

48,000 cases of pertussis were confirmed nationally last year, resulting in 20 deaths, according to the FDA report.

The East End is hardly immune, as cases of pertussis have been reported in the past month at both Riverhead High School and the district’s Pulaski Street School, according to school officials. The number of cases was not disclosed.

Several cases of whooping cough have been confirmed each year since 2011 — and possibly earlier — not only in Riverhead but in the Shoreham-Wading River, Southold and the Mattituck-Cutchogue school districts as well.

The FDA study, published Nov. 25, showed that the while the current vaccine for the pertussis prevents adults and children from contracting the illness themselves, it does not prevent people from becoming colonized with the bacteria that causes it – Bordetella pertussis.

And those who are colonized can pass on the bacteria – infecting others, particularly infants not yet fully immunized, the study found.

“[The vaccine] is not protecting us to the full degree. It is protecting us from not developing clinical symptoms but it doesn’t protect us from being carriers,” said Dr. Yuliya Vinnitskaya, a new internal medicine physician at East End Physician Services in Southold. “Those vaccinated can carry the bacteria in airways for up to six weeks and spread it to infants.”

Pertussis starts out with typical cold symptoms that slowly become more severe, eventually manifesting with spells of rapid, violent coughing followed a “whooping” sound as patients try to take a breath, according to the CDC.

Those infected can spread the bacteria while they are suffering from the cold-like symptoms and for about two weeks after the coughing starts. Infection develops 7 to 10 days following exposure to the bacteria and symptoms can last for up to three months.

Dr. Vinnitskaya said the FDA’s recent findings call for the development of a new vaccine.

The current vaccine is what’s known as an acellular vaccine – which only contains portions of the pertussis bacteria. The FDA approved it in 1991, replacing its predecessor, which contained dead, but complete, forms of the bacteria. Dr. Vinnitskaya said.

The FDA is also investigating the possibility of diminished immunity from childhood pertussis vaccines, which it says may also play a role in re-emergence.

Infants begin immunizations for the disease starting at two months old – receiving a series of five shots – but they do not achieve full immunity until their last shot, which is given between ages 4 and 6, according to the CDC. Preteens and teens also receive a booster shot between the ages 11 and 18.

Dr. Vinnitskaya said infants are most likely to contract the disease from a loved one, so parents, grandparents and even siblings need to be extra cautious around young children.

Should someone come in contact with an infected individual and develop cold-like symptoms, she recommends they visit their physician.

And, of course, lots of hand washing is essential. It’s also flu season, after all.

Got a health question or column idea? Email Carrie Miller at [email protected].