Wednesday, June 19, 2013
By DOUG HARLOW Morning Sentinel
SKOWHEGAN - A spike in cases of the highly contagious disease whooping cough in Somerset County has health officials organizing public vaccination clinics as summer camp season approaches.
Dr. Stephen Sears, the state epidemiologist, said there were 41 reported cases of the disease in Somerset County, up from 33 the previous week.
"We're calling it a mini-epidemic," said Dr. Michael Lambke of Skowhegan. "It's localized here and our rates are (many) times the rates in Waldo County, Knox, Kennebec, Franklin, Aroostook. Summer camp season is just the realization that this isn't going away with schools closing."
In an attempt to prevent further spread of the disease, Lambke and medical professionals at Redington-Fairview General Hospital in Skowhegan have scheduled two public vaccination clinics.
Vaccinations for children, and for adults who may come into contact with children, are set for 4 to 6 p.m. Wednesday and again July 11 at the hospital on Fairview Avenue. Insurance companies will be billed for the cost; fees will be waived for the uninsured, Lambke said.
Sears said the Maine Center for Disease Control will supply the vaccine.
Whooping cough, the common name for pertussis, is a contagious respiratory disease that can cause long, violent coughing fits and the characteristic whooping sound that follows when a person gasps for air. The disease can have severe complications for infants, pregnant women and people with respiratory conditions.
Letters alerting families to the presence of whooping cough were sent home with Skowhegan high school students May 10. There were three cases reported at first -- two at the high school and another at an elementary school.
Parents were urged to check if their children's vaccines were up to date and to seek medical care if coughing and sneezing persisted.
More cases were reported in the weeks that followed, including in towns outside the Skowhegan school district.
"This is why we actually are holding the clinics, because we continue to see cases in the Somerset County area," Sears said. "We've seen increases in pertussis throughout the state, where we have 158 confirmed cases. We know that pertussis occurs in clusters."
He said cases are most common in Cumberland and Somerset counties, with some in York and Androscoggin counties.
Sears said his office has also sent out alerts to summer camp associations.
"Now that school is out, it doesn't mean the disease has gone away," he said. "It's gone potentially to other areas, which include summer camps, sport camps, church groups and any number of other places where you can potentially spread this to susceptible children."
Lambke said most children are getting their early childhood vaccinations, but some are not getting their booster shots, recommended for children in middle school.
Those older children, with a vaccination rate in the 63 percent range, are the age group with many of the confirmed whooping cough cases, he said.
Vaccination rates for children up to age 10, however, are in the 90 percent to 100 percent range, which is good, he said.
"What we're seeing is a little outbreak and consequently that adolescent population is sharing it," he said. "That puts the small children at risk and it's really that age group we're trying to protect."
Lambke said very young children who have not yet been vaccinated are highly susceptible to the disease, which can be fatal.
Morning Sentinel Staff Writer Doug Harlow can be reached at 612-2367 or at: