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What you need to know about the whooping cough in Ontario

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Whooping cough cases are on the rise in parts of Ontario and experts are reminding parents to remain vigilant as the illness can be most dangerous to young children.

Earlier this week, the Haliburton, Kawartha Pine Ridge District Health Unit issued an alert about increased whooping cough activity within its school community, asking parents to monitor their child for symptoms.

Ontario Public Health has reported that there have been at least 70 cases of the illness across the province since the start of the year. Cases have steadily climbed the past three years from 16 reported in 2021 to 159 in 2022 and 333 in 2023.

“It looks like year over year there are more cases. There’s definitely a rise but it's not would not be unique to Ontario,” Dr. Isaac Bogoch, infectious diseases specialist at Toronto’s University Health Network told CTV News Toronto. “It’s a bad infection. It's around, sadly more of it is around nowadays and much of this can be mitigated with timely access to vaccinations.”

Here’s everything you need to know about the whooping cough, also known as pertussis

What is whooping cough?

The whooping cough is a very contagious infection caused by the bacteria bordetella pertussis that affects the airways and lungs. It used to be called the "100-day cough" as symptoms can last for months if the illness is left untreated. The whooping cough caused thousands of deaths in the 1930s and 1940s. With the introduction of a vaccine, the death rate declined significantly.

What are symptoms?

The illness is known to cause coughing spells that end with a characteristic “whoop” as air is inhaled. The cough associated with the illness is usually a violent and rapid one. People sometimes also have sneezing and nasal discharge, as well as sore water eyes. Lips tongue and nailbeds may turn blue during coughing spells.

“It is just an excruciating sort of painful, poignant cough. The sound of the cough sound is like the person is gasping for air, suffocating,” Dasantila Golemi-Kotra, a microbiology associate professor at York University, told CTV News Toronto on Thursday.

“That's sort of the primary symptom that differentiates this type of respiratory disease from other respiratory diseases.”

Golemi-Kotra described the illness as “highly visible.” She said the cough is very clearly identifiable.

“Now that we're hearing more cases actually occurring in Canada, all around the world as well, it has become even more important to be more aware of the symptoms,” she said.

“If you have an infant that may be exposed, take them directly to a doctor and they can diagnose if it actually is whooping cough or there is another respiratory disease.”

How dangerous is it?

The illness is especially dangerous for infants under the age of one and pregnant individuals in their third trimester. If exposed or symptomatic, it is recommended that they contact their healthcare provider immediately for further assessment.

“The cough can be so severe that you can burst a blood vessel in the eye. There’s reports of people breaking a rib, it just can be very profound cough like no worst cough. People sometimes cough to the point of vomiting,” Bogoch said.

“With medical care, people would recover, but it would be more dangerous for little kids who have a narrower trachea.”

Children under one year of age with the illness are at highest risk of getting very sick and often need to be hospitalized. Almost all deaths from the infection happen in children who are six month of age and younger.

Bogoch said the cough can persist for a long time, sometimes for weeks and even months.

“It can be a prolonged and severe cough,” he said.

How to prevent?

Immunization is the most effective defense against pertussis. While the vaccine has been developed against whooping cough, which children often get in their first year of life at around two months of age, cases of the disease still happen, especially in infants younger than age 6 months.

Preventative antibiotics are used for anyone who has been exposed to harmful bacteria to help prevent them from getting sick. It is advised that anyone who has been around someone with whooping cough should receive antibiotics to prevent illness.

Good hygiene practice is also important to help prevent the spread of bacteria and viruses that can cause many respiratory illnesses.

How many cases in Toronto?

As of Wednesday, Toronto Public Health has reported 38 cases of pertussis in the city this year. The pre-pandemic average (2015-2019) is 60 cases per year.

The public health unit is currently hosting community clinics to help students catch-up on their school-based vaccines, including pertussis-containing vaccines.

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