Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Believe me, you do not want to contract whooping cough December 5, 2012

ABOUT A YEAR AGO my second daughter, who works as a Spanish medical interpreter in northeastern Wisconsin, reported warning signs about whooping cough posted at local clinics.

I figured it wouldn’t be long before the disease, also known as pertussis, spread to Minnesota.

According to the national Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Wisconsin and Minnesota currently are experiencing the highest year-to-date incidents of pertussis in the nation with 93.4 incidents per 100,000 people in Wisconsin and 78.1 per 100,000 in Minnesota. The national average is 11.6.

That translates into 4,174 confirmed, probable and suspect cases in Minnesota (as of November 29), according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

In Wisconsin, 5,163 cases were reported through October 31 by the Department of Health Services.

As of November 16, the CDC has received reports of 35,000 cases across the country, including 16 deaths.

Statistics are one thing, something most of us approach with the attitude of “that doesn’t affect me.”

Reality, getting the disease, is quite another.

I speak from experience.

In the summer of 2005, when I was 48, I came down with what I initially thought was a bad cold. Turns out the horrific sore throat, followed by the equally horrific cough, was actually whooping cough. After three doctor’s visits and a misdiagnosis of bronchitis, I was correctly diagnosed with pertussis, the first case my physician had ever seen in his longtime career.

When he informed me that pertussis is also known as the 100-day cough, he was not joking. I was racked by uncontrollable fits of coughing from around July Fourth until well after Labor Day.

For me, the summer of 2005 was spent languishing on the couch, feeling like absolute crap, exhausted from lack of sleep (ever try sleeping when you are constantly coughing), utterly worn down, unable to barely function.

The worst, and I mean absolute worst, moment came when I awoke one night gasping for air, my windpipe narrowed. In retrospect, that asthmatic type attack warranted a 911 call and I now consider myself fortunate to have survived. Yes, it was that bad and necessitated another visit to the doctor for a regiment of the inflammation reducing steroid prednisone and an inhaler.

I don’t know why I experienced a particularly bad case of whooping cough. Typically the young and elderly are most harshly affected. Unvaccinated infants can even die.

The gravestone of Deloris Edna Emilie Bode in Immanuel Lutheran Church, rural Courtland.

The gravestone of Deloris Edna Emilie Bode in the Immanuel Lutheran Church cemetery, rural Courtland.

Nor do I know how I got a disease I thought had vanished decades ago and which claimed the life of my Aunt Deloris in 1935 at nine months old. My doctor speculated that I could have been exposed waiting in the check-out line at the grocery store. I’ll never know.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, here’s how pertussis is spread:

The bacteria is found in fluids from the mouth and nose of someone with pertussis. The bacteria is spread when fluid containing the bacteria gets in your nose or mouth. This can happen when a person with pertussis coughs or sneezes on you, or by touching the fluid and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. In general, a person is at greater risk of getting pertussis if they are within three feet of someone with pertussis for at least 10 hours a week, this is considered close contact.

My physician immediately put me and my entire family on antibiotics, which can reduce the severity of whooping cough. My husband and one daughter also eventually contracted minor cases of pertussis.

I learned a lot during my summer as a whooping crane. (One has to find humor in an experience like this.) I learned that the vaccine most of us get as babies wears off about the time we reach middle school age. Ironically, in the same year I was ill, new pertussis vaccines were approved for adolescents and adults.

If you’re not up-to-date on your pertussis vaccine, I’d suggest you get vaccinated.

There. I’ll get off my soapbox now.

FYI: The Mayo Clinic in Rochester on Monday released this report on whooping cough.

Click here to learn all about pertussis from the CDC.

If you live in Minnesota, click here to a link showing a map of year-to-date pertussis cases in Minnesota, including 10 right here in my county of Rice.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling