Health officials are investigating an unusual number of whooping cough cases in New Jersey’s Hunterdon County. In recent years, however, pertussis cases have been on the decline throughout the state.
There are seven confirmed cases, two probable cases — and three under investigation — all in Hunterdon.
Rose Puelle, who leads the Public Health Preparedness team in Hunterdon County, hopes to identify others who may be at risk. She advises those with a severe, prolonged cough to go see a doctor.
“It starts out as flu, coldlike symptoms, and then it progresses to severe coughing. People can cough so much that they feel like they are going to vomit or they actually do vomit,” she said.
Whooping cough is easily spread through close contact, including sharing food.
“The seven kids were not in what we call a cluster, they were not necessarily from one school or one church, that’s what I know so far, said Arturo Brito, New Jersey’s deputy commissioner of public health services.
“So that’s more worrisome in that this may be an outbreak that we need to maintain and keep track of,” said Brito, pediatrician.
In Hunterdon, the sick children are between 4 and 15 years old. They had some whooping cough vaccinations, but it’s not clear yet if all had completed the full series that’s required for the best protection.
In 2010 and 2011, New Jersey saw an encouraging decrease in pertussis cases especially in children age 5 to 9, Brito said. He can’t say why, but the decline comes on the heels of a 2008 state policy change requiring kids to get a whooping cough booster shot before entering middle school.
“When you increase the vaccination rates for children in that age group, you are also helping to protect their siblings and other children that are younger,” Brito said.
After realizing that the effectiveness can wear off in teenagers and young adults, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends booster whooping cough vaccinations.
“That means that there are more people walking around who are not immune to pertussis and whooping cough and may have the bacteria in their system,” said Joel Klein, an infectious disease physician at A.I. duPont Hospital for Children in Delaware.
Whooping cough can be especially serious illness for infants.
Brito says an infant in Ocean County, New Jersey was recently diagnosed and hospitalized at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. That 7-month-old was not vaccinated.
Information on whooping cough counts for Pennsylvania and Delaware weren’t available in time for this report.