La Plata County has recorded three confirmed cases of pertussis this week, bringing the 2008 total to nine. The other confirmed cases were early in the year.
This week's cases involve a 4-month-old, a 5-year-old and an adult, according to the San Juan Basin Health Department. The health department did not disclose the gender of the three, but warned that the number of people exposed to the illness may increase with so many holiday gatherings taking place.
"I wouldn't be surprised to see more pertussis," Joe Fowler, a registered nurse and the epidemiologist at San Juan Basin Health Department, said Wednesday. "There's a potential for exposure at school, parties or the malls."
Symptoms can develop from four to 21 days after exposure - the average is seven to 10 days. This means children could be returning to the classroom carrying an illness they contracted before the Christmas break, Fowler said.
The nine documented cases of pertussis this year in La Plata County is triple the number in 2007 when there was a precipitous decrease from the 51 cases in 2006. The county registered 38 cases in 2004 and 34 cases in 2005. Archuleta County had no cases of pertussis in 2004, four cases in 2005, a single case in 2006, two cases in 2007 and one case in 2008.
Pertussis, known also as whooping cough and earlier as the 100-day cough, is contagious, Fowler said. The bacteria is spread by sneezing or coughing. Early symptoms such as a runny nose, slight fever, sneezing or a mild cough can be confused with the common cold, he said.
But don't wait too long to seek treatment, Fowler said. Violent coughing can lead to vomiting or passing out, he said. Doctors can perform a diagnostic test if they suspect pertussis. If pertussis is diagnosed, patients must stay out of circulation until they've had five days of antibiotics.
"Pertussis can be especially dangerous for infants under 6 months old," Fowler said. "They are particularly susceptible because their immune system hasn't developed."
While exposure to pertussis can occur almost anywhere, the public has one thing going for it, Fowler said. More adults and adolescents are being vaccinated against the disease.
"Up until three years ago, the only approved tetanus/diphtheria/pertussis vaccine was for children kindergarten age or younger," Fowler said. "Then a Tdap vaccine was approved for adolescents and later adults."
Caution is the watchword when dealing with whooping cough, however, Fowler said. The illness, which takes its name from the wheeze that victims make while gasping for breath, can last for months.