Whooping cough epidemic strikes

WEIGHT OFF HIS CHEST: Cody Lilley, 9, with mum Jae Edmonds back playing in a park after his struggle with whooping cough.
WEIGHT OFF HIS CHEST: Cody Lilley, 9, with mum Jae Edmonds back playing in a park after his struggle with whooping cough.

Southland and Otago are in the midst of a whooping cough epidemic, which medical experts say could have been prevented by subsidising immunisations for all ages.

In 2012 there were 261 confirmed cases of pertussis - whooping cough - in the Southern District Health Board area compared with just 61 cases in 2011. The health board has confirmed 208 cases so far this year.

The board's medical officer of health, Dr Keith Reid, said the southern area was treating a higher number of young adults and elderly as their immune systems and previous booster shots waned.

"The disease is highly contagious, spreading quickly among the general public," he said.

The Ministry of Health currently provides subsidised immunisations for pregnant mothers in their last trimester, and children up to the age of 11.

"The immunisation only lasts 10 years, as people's immunities wane they become more susceptible to contracting the disease," Dr Reid said.

"Many babies are contracting it from parents who haven't had a booster."

New Zealand's approach to vaccination was a targeted preventive action to minimise mortality but was proving less effective as a strategy to reduce the circulation of the disease, he said.

"These unfunded recommendations are probably inevitable given the cost implications of subsidised community-wide vaccination approaches," Dr Reid said.

The epidemic is a national problem with more than 8800 cases reported since 2011.

Immunisation Advisory Centre director Dr Helen Petousis-Harris said she would like to see a pertussis-only vaccine used more frequently in all age groups.

Whooping cough epidemics occur every four to six years, according to the Immunisation Advisory Centre.

"The reason we keep having epidemics is because we have been unable to get enough people in the population immune to carrying the infection at any one time," Dr Petousis-Harris said.

The centre recommends vaccination boosters as often as every four to six years to remain immune. "I can see no reason why we could not prevent epidemics if 95 per cent of the population was immunised against to infection.

"What we do know is that very few adults have had booster vaccinations against whooping cough and if more had current protection then the disease would have more trouble circulating," Dr Petousis-Harris said.

"At the moment we only have a combined pertussis-tetanus-diphtheria vaccine . . . if there was a single vaccine I think we would recommend using it more often and across age groups."

Unsubsidised vaccines cost about $25, plus the normal doctor's fee.

Acting Director of Public Health Dr Fran McGrath said the Government's priorities for vaccinations against whooping cough were infants, young children and pregnant women.



After a weekend away playing at his uncle's farm, 9-year-old Cody Lilley came home complaining of feeling sick.

Cody's mother, Jae Edmonds, thought he was just being a typical kid trying to weasel his way out of school, until he started coughing so persistently he would be sick.

"He couldn't keep anything down because his cough was so bad," she said.

Vomiting and feverish, Cody was taken to the doctor where he was diagnosed with whooping cough despite having been immunised against it.

Doctors prescribed a course of antibiotics and he was quarantined for five days.

Ms Edmonds said that even after the cough had subsided, Cody was still struggling with energy levels. "Even the teachers at school can see he still isn't right."



Whooping cough is a highly contagious bacterial disease, characterised by convulsive coughs followed by a whooping sound.

Symptoms: persistent hacking cough, runny nose, sneezing, fevers.

Symptoms begin with a slight cough and runny nose for up to 14 days before bouts of coughing begin. Incubation period is usually 7-10 days but can be up to 21 days.

Highly infectious disease transmitted easily by coughing and sneezing. Early symptoms can be treated with a five-day course of antibiotics, which will prevent you from being contagious.

For those five days it is recommended you quarantine yourself at home.

Severe bouts of coughing may end in vomiting.

Coughing can last up to three months.

The Southland Times