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Whooping cough continues its creep across Western North Carolina

Map showing where whooping cough cases are reported in Western North Carolina. In some counties, health officials have recorded cases but have not declared an outbreak.

Macon County is the latest in Western North Carolina to issue a public health alert about the whooping cough outbreak that is spreading across the region. Six cases have been confirmed, affecting multiple age groups, according to a Friday news release issued by Macon County Public Health.

The highly contagious respiratory infection has also shown up in Buncombeand Graham counties, with confirmed case counts holding steady at eight and two, respectively.

Meanwhile, in Henderson County, where the first whooping cough cases in WNC this year were reported, a localized outbreak is showing signs of a slowdown.

Public Health Information Officer Andrew Mundhenk told BPR that the case count has remained at 119 since the first week of June, and officials are hopeful the county is past the peak.

“School releasing for the summer was certainly helpful,” he said. Henderson County recorded its first case in April, BPR previously reported.

The outbreak also appears to be tapering off in nearby Transylvania County, where 53 cases have been confirmed since early May, according to Tara Rybka, the health department’s public information officer. No new cases have been recorded since the end of May.

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. While whooping cough can be serious for anyone, it can be life-threatening for babies too young to be fully vaccinated, immunocompromised individuals, and pregnant women.

Babies are at a higher risk of life-threatening complications from pertussis in their first six months of life because their immune systems are still developing, which is why the CDC advises women to get a booster with every pregnancy.

It’s recommended that the DTaP (Diphtheria, Tetanus, Pertussis) vaccine be given at 2, 4, and 6 months, at 15 through 18 months, and at 4 through 6 years. The Tdap vaccine is recommended for kids 11 and older as well as adults who may need a booster. Find the full vaccine recommendations from the CDC here.

While the end of the school year means kids are no longer gathering in classrooms and hallways, it also signals the start of summer camp season and other programs that bring kids back together in even closer quarters. Along with getting the word out to the community, local health departments have also been working to inform local summer camps.

In Henderson County, that includes guidance on which symptoms to monitor as well as help with accessing testing and treatment measures, according to Mundhenk.

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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