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Tim Johnson, The Burlington (Vt.) Free Press
BURLINGTON, Vt. -- A whooping cough epidemic is affecting Vermont, according to the Vermont Department of Health, which is calling on all adults 19 and older to get vaccinated.

As of last week, 522 cases of pertussis (as whooping cough is also known) had been reported statewide, Commissioner Harry Chen told a news conference Thursday. That's more than 10 times the usual number for this time of year. More cases are being reported daily, state epidemiologist Patsy Kelso said.

About 90 percent of Vermont children have been vaccinated, Kelso said, but the immunization rate for adults is much lower, probably in the neighborhood of 10 percent. And adults are believed to be primarily responsible for spreading the disease, largely via coughing and sneezing.

Free clinics to administer the vaccine to adults will be open at regional health department offices Wednesday, Chen said. The adult booster, called Tdap, has only been available in Vermont since 2006, so most people probably have not received it. Tdap also immunizes against tetanus and diphtheria.

Neither TDap nor the child version of the vaccine, DTaP, is foolproof. A majority of the 522 cases are in vaccinated children, Kelso said, adding that the effectiveness fades as years pass. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, DTaP vaccines are 80 percent to 90 percent effective, and "about seven of 10 kids are fully protected five years after getting their last dose." Children typically receive five doses of DTaP between the age of 2 months and 6 years.

The highest incidence in Vermont is in the 10-to-14-year-old age group, Kelso said.

As for the adult vaccine, the CDC website states: "Our current estimate is that Tdap vaccination protects 7 of 10 people who receive it."

Vaccinated people who come down with the disease tend have less severe cases, Kelso said.

Whooping cough "often begins with cold-like symptoms and an irritating cough," the Department of Health's website states. "Severe coughing spells develop, often followed by whoops, which can lead to the ill person turning blue or having trouble catching his or her breath, and sometimes vomiting after coughing."

Officials emphasized that the vaccines are safe and the best way to prevent the spread of the disease, which can be fatal. No fatalities have been reported in Vermont.

Chen said other states are also reporting outbreaks of pertussis.

"This is a life-threatening illness," said Lewis First, chief of pediatrics at Vermont Children's Hospital at Fletcher Allen Health Care. "The good news is we can do something about this."

Beyond immunization, he said, people should make a point of washing their hands regularly, coughing or sneezing into their sleeves, and keeping kids away from second-hand smoke, which makes it tougher to eradicate the bacteria once it lands in the respiratory passages.

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