Queensland’s peak medical body is urging people to ensure their vaccinations are up to date after a spike in whooping cough cases in northern Queensland, including the recent diagnosis of a high school student.
Parents were notified late last week after the Cairns student was suspected of suffering from whooping cough.
That diagnosis has since been confirmed and is one of 37 cases in the north of the state this year.
Only 10 cases had been reported by this time last year.
Australian Medical Association Queensland Council of General Practice chairman Richard Kidd urged all Australians, particularly those in northern Queensland, to vaccinate against largely preventable diseases in the wake of the recent spike.
“In pre-vaccination times [whooping cough] would kill at least one person in 10, and today sadly we will still see babies that will die because they haven’t had the opportunity to get vaccinated,” he said.
“For older children and adults who haven’t been vaccinated, there’s still a risk of dying from whooping cough.”
What is Whooping Cough?
Whooping cough, or pertussis, is a disease of the respiratory tract caused by bacteria that live in the mouth, nose and throat.
While anyone can contract the infection, it is particularly life-threatening for unvaccinated babies, the sick and the elderly.
Dr Kidd said while vaccination was a vital part of reducing the risk of death due to whooping cough, there was no inoculation that could entirely prevent sufferers from contracting the disease, and people who had it as children could contract it again as adults.
“The coughing is so severe people almost want to die … older adults can certainly break their ribs,” he said.
“Persistent and violent coughing can go on for months and months after the initial infection.
“The closer we can get to a 100 per cent vaccination rate the safer everybody is.”
‘I Wouldn’t Wish it on Anyone’
Brian Stopford was literally brought to his knees by coughing fits for months due to whooping cough.
The far north Queensland teacher contracted the debilitating disease five years ago and remembers the pain vividly.
“They call it the 100-day cough and I can vouch for how long it lasts,” he said.
“I’ve never been as sick in my adult life. I lost about 5kg in two weeks because I couldn’t eat. I lost my voice completely and getting up was a challenge. I was weak.
“I’d go into a coughing fit that could reduce me to my hands and knees, and there was no [knowing] when it would stop and I could get off the floor. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”
Vaccinations Vital to Reduce Whooping Cough Spikes
The 37 presentations of whooping cough this year follow a total of 314 confirmed cases in northern Queensland last year.
Tropical Public Health Services (Cairns) director Richard Gair said while this year and last year’s numbers had been high, he was not surprised by the spikes.
“We do know whooping cough follows a pattern where we have peaks and troughs over the years, so we’re used to seeing a peak every three to four years,” he said.
“We often see a difference in the pattern of diseases in different areas of the state. We often see it with flu for example.”
Dr Gair said more than half of the people infected this year in northern Queensland were aged 14 years or under.
“We will ask anyone affected not to attend school until they’re non-infectious,” he said.
“We would also encourage any children who aren’t vaccinated to get vaccinated.”
The vaccination rate among children in northern Queensland has remained relatively stable over the past three years, indicating a drop in inoculations was not the sole cause of the spike.
Dr Gair said that did not mean parents should become complacent when it came to vaccinations.
“I don’t think we can ever completely eliminate transmission [of whooping cough], but we can certainly reduce the number of cases or spikes and reduce the severity of the disease,” he said.
“If we let the vaccination rates drop then we could see an increase in serious illness and death from these infectious diseases.”