State and national health officials are predicting a record number of whooping cough cases this year and are urging vaccination against the highly contagious disease, especially for pregnant women and small children.
"I don't think it is a cause for panic. I do think it is a cause for people to sit up and take notice," said Dr. Kraig Humbaugh, state epidemiologist with the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
Whooping cough, or pertussis, is a contagious disease caused by bacteria. It is spread by respiratory droplets transmitted person to person among those who are in close contact with one another. Nationwide, nine children have died of the disease so far this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There have been 171 reported cases in Kentucky, Humbaugh said. "We are on track to beat our record from just two years ago." In 2010, more than 300 cases were reported in the state.
The state is unfortunately following a national trend.
The CDC recently announced that there have been 18,000 cases nationally so far in 2012. That is double the number of annual confirmed cases as of last July. At that pace, the number for the entire year will be the highest since 1959, when 40,000 illnesses were reported. Washington state and Wisconsin have been hit especially hard so far, with about 3,000 reported cases each.
In Kentucky, some counties report growing rates of infection. Madison County has 24 confirmed cases. Estill County has reported 20 confirmed cases. The Northern Kentucky Health Department, which serves Boone, Campbell, Grant and Kenton counties, has reported 61 cases.
In Lexington, there have been 15 confirmed cases, according to the Fayette County Health Department. That is more than usual, spokesman Kevin Hall said. From 2005 to 2011, Fayette County had 24 cases.
Humbaugh said it's best to make sure vaccinations are current for you and your children. Do not wait until an outbreak comes to your county, he said.
Immunization for whooping cough is required for children attending public school, he said, but many adults might not have received the vaccine as children or might need a booster shot to make the vaccine effective.
In areas with a high number of cases — such as Estill and Madison counties, and Northern Kentucky — local health departments are offering free vaccination clinics or discounted vaccines.
The Fayette County Health Department is not offering vaccines because of budget cuts, Hall said. People should contact their family physician.
Those without a family doctor or health insurance can contact HealthFirst, a non-profit clinic that separated last year from the health department and is absorbing some of the clinic duties that the department provided.
If whooping cough in Fayette County became a public health threat, Hall said, the department would offer vaccinations.
Gwenda Bond, spokesman for the state health cabinet, said that there is no clearinghouse for what individual health departments are offering but that there is plenty of vaccine available, and local departments can provide information about vaccines.
Humbaugh said it's important for people to act.
"This is a preventable disease," he said.