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Whooping cough spiking statewide, outbreak in Snohomish

Whooping cough has made a big comeback across Washington. With more than 900 cases statewide, the illness hit its highest numbers last year since a similar spike in 2005. 

It’s reached epidemic proportions in Snohomish County. 

The situation there is serious enough that health agencies offered two free vaccination clinics last Saturday – and plan another one later this month.

Eight infants were hospitalized last year in Snohomish with pertussis (the formal name for whooping cough), and one baby died.

Adults need vaccination

Snohomish Public health director Gary Goldbaum says adults are the key to containing the epidemic. Most got the vaccine when they were kids, but it wears off. He’s urging them to get re-vaccinated:

"Especially if that adult is going to have any contact with children. The only way infants can be protected is by a cocooning effect that is everyone who comes in contact with them has to be uninfected."

Babies can’t be fully vaccinated until they're six months, so they're vulnerable if adults aren't up to date. 

No good answers

Other hotspots last year were in Pierce and Whatcom counties. The real number of infections is probably much higher, since adults tend to get very mild cases – and never get diagnosed. 

Neither Goldbaum nor officials at the Washington Department of Health could explain exactly why pertussis seems to have cyclical outbreaks. The spike back in 2005 was even bigger, topping 1,000 cases statewide. The disease is highly contagious, and apparently once it starts to spread in a community, it can quickly become an epidemic.

Note: Group Health Cooperative  will offer free pertussis booster shots (the Tdap) to adults at their Everett clinic from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 25.

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Keith Seinfeld is a former KNKX/KPLU reporter who covered health, science and the environment over his 17 years with the station. He also served as assistant news director. Prior to KLPU, he was a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.