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Gabriola Island residents hacking away at pertussis outbreak

An outbreak of whooping cough on Gabriola Island has health officials reminding all parents to keep their children’s vaccinations up to date.

A letter was sent home with students at Gabriola Elementary School on Dec. 19, notifying parents that a lab-confirmed case of pertussis had been confirmed at the school. By the end of December, the number of cases confirmed on Gabriola had reached three.

The Vancouver Island Health authority confirmed a total of 14 cases, with half of those occurring in youth.

Also known as pertussis, whooping cough is a bacterial infection of the upper airway and is an especially serious illness for babies under the age of 12 months. It occurs at any age but most affects young children, including complications like pneumonia, brain damage and seizures.

“The most severe disease and the possibility of death occurs in young infants,” said Dr. Charmaine Enns, VIHA medical health officer. “Other people who get pertussis can feel pretty sick, but then are also capable of transmitting to the general population if people are not aware.”

Because the early stages of whooping cough tend to mimic other illnesses, it can also be hard to detect, Enns said.

The signature trademark of whooping cough is a prolonged acute attack of coughing that often causes the infected individual to make a ‘whooping’ sound as they catch their breath, hence the name.

And because the cough tends to become worse over time, by the time the definitive symptoms show, the infection has been present and contagious for days. Pertussis is spread when an infected person coughs, sneezes or has close contact with others.

“The only way to know for sure if you have pertussis is if you go to your family doctor and be tested,” she said. “Not every cough is pertussis.”

Enns said whooping cough is a vaccine preventable disease which is treated with antibiotics.

She added that vaccines can wane over time, meaning keeping up-to-date on immunizations can reduce the risk of infection.

Home treatment for symptoms include staying quiet and calm to reduce coughing episodes, avoiding smoke and dust and having small drinks.

For more information on pertussis, please visit http://www.healthlinkbc.ca/healthfiles/hfi le15c.stm

Residents can call the health unit for information regarding immunization – there is a monthly immunization clinic on Gabriola Island and there are drop-in immunization clinics in Nanaimo Monday through Friday.

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