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WNC health officials brace for potential for whooping cough spread in summer camps

With more than 150 whooping cough cases across Henderson and Transylvania counties, Western North Carolina health officials are concerned about the spread of the respiratory illness over the summer.

Henderson County has the highest number of confirmed whooping cough cases locally and most cases are in school-aged children. Staff at the Henderson County Department of Public Health said they have been working around the clock.

"It's a bit reminiscent of the COVID days," Kristina Henderson, a communicable disease nurse supervisor, said.

“Hopefully we're getting to a point where things are gonna settle down, but we can't stop being vigilant about contact tracing and preventative treatments.”

The department recommends antibiotics for those who've been in close contact with people who tested positive for pertussis, or whooping cough.

“It’s possible, looking at the epidemiologic curve, that we may have hit a peak in cases at this point,” Henderson said, while also pointing out the outbreak could worsen and lead to another peak.

“But with schools letting out and kids hopefully spending more time outside once school is out, we do expect numbers to gradually come down."

While Henderson said they are hopeful, summer may present another challenge: the start of summer camp season and other programs that bring kids back together in even closer quarters.

“We do think that there is a concern for transmission in camps as well,” Emma Doran, M.D., medical director of vaccine preventable and respiratory diseases at the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, told BPR.

“During COVID, our local partners worked very closely with schools and camps to establish relationships. And we’re relying on those relationships as we work to share messaging about pertussis with camp nurses and administrators.”

The messages include information about hygiene, vaccinations and how to spot the symptoms of whooping cough, which doesn’t start with a cough.

Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, affects the airways and lungs and spreads easily when someone coughs or sneezes. It gets its name from the "whooping" sound people make when gasping for air after coughing. Symptoms typically develop five to 10 days after exposure but can take as long as 21 days.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the illness initially presents itself as the common cold but can progress to a severe cough lasting for weeks or even months, occasionally leading to coughing fits or vomiting.

"We are certainly better equipped than we were in years past because of COVID, but even before the pandemic, we worked with summer camps," Henderson said. She noted that they have given camp leaders guidance on a variety of health issues in the past, including handling noroviruses and other common contagious illnesses.

“So the whooping cough outbreak absolutely fits right into that box.”

For more information on pertussis, including symptoms and vaccination recommendations, visit cdc.gov/pertussis.

Have a camper in the house and looking for summer camp safety tips? The Buncombe County Department of Health and Human Services has created a WNC Camp Safety Guide for parents, caregivers and camp administrators.

Helen Chickering is a host and reporter on Blue Ridge Public Radio. She joined the station in November 2014.
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