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


19 Responses to “Believe me, you do not want to contract whooping cough”

  1. cecilia Says:

    sounds nasty and I have no idea that adults could get it! I think the trick is to stay out of grocery stores, that should do it! c

  2. Beth Ann Says:

    I had no idea that your vaccine would wear out!!! Why do they not preach that like crazy???? Thanks for the PSA!!! Sorry you had to live through it—it sounds simply horrible!!!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I had no idea either that the vaccine wore off, until I got whooping cough. I don’t know about down in Iowa, but there’s been quite a bit of media coverage on pertussis this year here in Minnesota. And, yes, dealing with this disease was a pretty awful experience.

  3. Clyde of Mankato Says:

    My mother was born in 1917, in other words right into the teeth of one of the worst flu epidemics in world history, no doubt related to WWI. She always preached that we three children were living in an age when children only rarely died. One of the diseases that ravaged the Midwest in her youth was whooping cough. We walked through a rural cemetery in Iowa where many of her relatives are buried. She pointed out just two or three gravestones of children dying then, but moreso she pointed out graves with simply a small cross or rock on them, which was all people could really afford.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      So true. So sad…to lose one’s child and often more than one. Two of my dad’s siblings also died before reaching the age of one, I believe, although I do not know the causes of their deaths.

      • Clyde of Mankato Says:

        They probably did not know either.
        My wife and I love walking cemeteries. The old rough Finnish ones in the woods of NE MN and the rural prairie ones are our favorites here. The colonial ones of New England are amazing for the imagery, history and botany. I have twice, my accident not design, spent Halloween in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, which happens to be the name of the cemetery in Concord MA. Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, the Alcotts are buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, somehow a nice literary coincidence.

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        In recent years my husband and I have also begun walking cemeteries, for many of the same reasons you list. We have not explored outside of Minnesota as our travels really do not take us very distant. Gravestones hold such much from which we can learn.

      • Clyde of Mankato Says:

        Bet you have not thought of this one: a man I met in a colonial cemetery in central CT studies the rate of lichen growth and changes in the forms of lichens over time because the dates on the stones give him a time frame. And those slab-form Edward Gorey stones are perfect for fostering lichen growth.

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        Well, then, add science to the list of educational opportunities found on gravestones, the others being art, literature, health and history. Have I missed any?

      • Clyde of Mankato Says:

        I had a course many years ago from UW-Superior on using community resources in education. The guy who taught it had only lived in Superior one year. The things he found in that year–amazing. Superior has a very interesting history. The class had a range of teachers in it, many elementary grades and many secondary subjects. We visited an old hidden cemetery in the jack pines east of Superior. We sat as a group and thought of all the way we could use the cemetery in our classrooms, as we did for each place we visited. I wonder how many had the nerve to take students to a cemetery. I told the colleague who taught creative writing about the ideas for writing we came up with. He gave as an option for the students to go walk the local cemetery and write poems, stories, or sketches on what they saw or what triggered their imaginations. In my journalism class one year three students took our excellent, very observant, very creative biology teacher on a walk through a country cemetery and wrote feature stories on what he observed about the cemetery as a biome. He loved doing it. They three students were overwhelmed by what he could see.

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        Excellent, Clyde. I love to see creativity like this in teaching, to take students outside of the classroom into an environment and let them go. Some really good ideas here and thank you for sharing them.

  4. Great Reminder! A family relative recently had this and she was in her 60s. We convinced her to go in and have it looked at and lucky for her was diagnosed correctly the 1st time. When I went for my physical in June I had to have my shot updated due to having Asthma. Have a Great Day:)

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Yes, I think a quick diagnosis is key to a lessened case of whooping cough. Also, I now have a new appreciation for anyone, like you, who suffers from asthma.

  5. Erin Says:

    It’s interesting that you posted this since a few weeks ago I went to buy some baked goods from the Amish near Mora and there were signs posted on the door that they had confirmed whooping cough. when I asked the woman about it she said her young sons were recovering from it. I know they don’t immunize, but thought it was responsible of them to post a warning to shoppers.
    Thanks for the reminder to get vaccinated!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Oh, Erin, I hope you did not expose yourself to the disease. As long as the mother seemed healthy, you’re probably OK.

      And, yes, it was good of the Amish family to at least post that sign about whooping cough.

  6. Rosie Says:

    Since most forms of the Pertussis vaccine that I am aware of is part of the tetanus vaccine (which should be updated every 10 years); more people are up to date than they realize. We’ve had all the warnings in our school districts. I wonder what I’ve been exposed to during all the years teaching junior high…..

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I did wonder about this, too, Rosie. The vaccine for adults only came out in 2005, that I do know. So I am not certain whether pertussis was part of the tetanus vaccine prior to that year. I think not. Any healthcare professionals out there able to clarify?

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