Maine’s public health community is on the lookout for whooping cough, after a rash of cases in the past two months.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention issued a public health alert about pertussis last week after confirming 13 cases since Nov. 1, including children in the Bangor area. That’s up from seven cases during the same period last year.

It’s the second statewide alert about whooping cough in four months, as the contagious disease continues a nationwide resurgence this year.

“Pertussis is really a major problem, not just in Maine but all over the country,” said Stephen Sears, Maine’s state epidemiologist. “We’ve had cases pretty much all around the state.”

The illness gets its name from the whooping sound that coughing children make while trying to catch their breath. It is spread by droplets of saliva. “Basically, a cough in your face will do it,” Sears said.

The spread of whooping cough has intensified vaccination efforts in several states. California has experienced its worst outbreak in 60 years; 10 young children have reportedly died from the illness there this year.

Sears said he doesn’t believe that Maine has had a pertussis fatality in at least two years, although the number of diagnosed cases is clearly rising.

Most Maine children are routinely vaccinated against pertussis, but they can still get the disease.

While health experts strongly recommend routine vaccination to reduce risk, the comeback of pertussis has generated debate about how fast the vaccine wears off and whether it is losing its effectiveness against the bacteria.

Sears said the combination of children who are not vaccinated and children whose vaccinations “don’t take” has opened the door to the cyclical disease.

“Like most vaccines, it’s not perfect,” Sears said.

Public health experts say the illness is much more prevalent among adults than many people realize, even adults who were vaccinated as children. Mainers ranging from 7 years old to 60 have been diagnosed in the past two months.

Many adults who get whooping cough do not get as sick as young children, so they may assume they have the flu or just a nagging cough, Sears said. But they can still spread it to others, including young children.

Maine’s CDC recommends that pre-teens, teenagers and adults, especially those who come into contact with infants, get Tdap boosters when they are due for their next tetanus shots. The Tdap includes an adult booster for pertussis as well as tetanus.

Sears said the state issued the latest whooping-cough alert after the illness spread among some youth athletic teams in Penobscot County.

“We get a little concerned when we see a cluster or a couple of clusters,” he said.

Sears said the state wants to remind health care providers and others that the flu is not the only respiratory illness to watch for this winter. Antibiotics can help stop the spread of pertussis, but aren’t typically prescribed in flu cases.

“We want to make sure people are thinking of both diseases,” he said.

State health officials investigate each diagnosed case of whooping cough to try to find its origin and keep it from spreading, Sears said. He would not provide any further details about the recent cluster, but two youth hockey organizations in Bangor have reported cases on their websites this month and alerted parents.

“We’ve been making parents aware that their child may have been exposed to it,” said Cheryl Derrah, director of the Bangor Youth Hockey Association.

The organization has teams for children ages 5 to 14, she said.

The association helped state officials contact the families of two teams that have players who are being treated for pertussis.

The state recommended that the teammates receive antibiotics as a preventive measure, she said.

“It did surprise me” that whooping cough was back, Derrah said. “But they’re doing their jobs as far as making sure the families are contacted. They’ve been very diligent about that.”

In the meantime, she said, the young hockey players will continue to keep their gloves on when they shake hands with opponents after their games. The tradition started last year as a precaution against H1N1 flu.


Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: [email protected]