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Justin Erp, 5, left, of Montevideo, receives one in a series of vaccinations -- whooping cough among them -- administered Friday by nurse Edmee Behm of Atwater at Affiliated Community Medical Centers. Local health officials say many parents are asking about the whooping cough vaccine during back-to-school appointments. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)

Whooping cough outbreak has west central Minn. paying attention

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Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

WILLMAR -- A national rise in the incidence of whooping cough has many local residents paying attention.

Parents are asking about the whooping cough vaccine as they bring their children in for back-to-school appointments with the family doctor, said Jo DeBruycker, director of the Health Learning Center at Affiliated Community Medical Centers.

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"There've been a lot of questions and I'm grateful for that," she said.

Even older adults have been asking about the disease and whether they should get a booster shot, she said. "There's been very much a heightened awareness."

Whooping cough, or pertussis, has been on the increase in the U.S. for the past several years and has spread even more significantly this year. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported this week that a record-breaking 28,257 cases have been confirmed for the year so far. The previous record was 27,500 cases of pertussis reported for all of 2010.

Minnesota is among eight states with more than 1,000 confirmed cases of whooping cough; the state had 2,711 cases as of Aug. 25.

Public health officials are not sure what's behind the increase. Theories have included better recognition and reporting of the disease, decreased effectiveness of the current vaccine and a possible shift in the bacteria that causes whooping cough.

Regardless, vaccination remains the most effective way to protect against pertussis -- and local health providers are continuing with a long-standing practice of offering the vaccine to everyone who's eligible, including adults.

"We're immunizing adults as best we can. We're immunizing children as best we can," said Stacey Zondervan, director of patient services at Family Practice Medical Center in Willmar.

Children are the most vulnerable to whooping cough and the most likely to become severely ill if they come down with it. But health officials say it's also important for adults to receive booster shots, especially if they are in frequent contact with kids.

Although many adults were vaccinated years ago, protection from the vaccine is known to wear off by the teen years or early adulthood, allowing grownups to unwittingly spread pertussis to others.

"We can actually spread things to children," Zondervan said. "It's important that people have that on their radar screen."

Rice Memorial Hospital offers pertussis boosters to new mothers before they go home with their baby.

"We've been doing it for quite some time," said Jan Maxfield, director of women's and children's care at the hospital.

Most women have already received a booster as part of their prenatal care, and it's only a small percentage of new moms who are immunized while in the hospital, she said. "Both clinics have really been able to get the majority of mothers vaccinated prenatally. It's been a great effort with our medical facilities."

Offering the vaccine in the hospital is one more opportunity to catch those who might not have been given a booster shot -- and it's also a chance to educate new fathers, grandparents and the extended family about the need for pertussis protection, Maxfield said. "It's really that continuum of care."

Local providers said the supply of pertussis vaccine has remained adequate.

Several pharmacies started offering the vaccine this past month. Making the booster shots more widely available to adults is "a good thing," Zondervan said, but she advises people who receive a pertussis booster shot from their pharmacy to notify their health provider so that it can be added to the medical record.

"It is important for us to know," she said.

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Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at http://healthbeat.areavoices.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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