An outbreak of whooping cough in B.C.'s West Kootenay region is raising concern that the low rate of immunization in the area could put the lives of some children at risk.

Health officials in the region said it has been two years since they have seen a case of whooping cough, but suddenly there are 19 confirmed cases of the infectious bacterial disease, which is also known as pertussis.

Whooping cough facts:

Pertussis, or whooping cough, is a serious infection of the lungs and throat.

  • About  one in 200 people who get pertussis will die.
  • Pertussis can cause pneumonia, convulsions, brain damage and death.
  • Complications are seen most often in infants.
  • The germ (bacteria) is easily spread by coughing, sneezing or close face-to-face contact.  
  • Pertussis can cause severe coughing that often ends with a whooping sound before the next breath.
  • This cough can last several months and occurs more often at night.

The DTaP-IPV vaccine protects against four diseases:

  • Diphtheria.
  • Tetanus.
  • Pertussis (whooping cough).
  • Polio.

Source: HealthLinkBC

Dr. Robert Parker, the medical health officer for the Kootenays, said the disease can linger for months causing a horrible cough, fever and gasping for breath.

He warns that severe infection of the throat and lungs can be fatal for infants.

"In Chinese folklore it's called the 100-day cough. The people who get into serious trouble are infants," said Parker.

Dr. Monica Naus, of the BC Centre for Disease Control, said what frustrates health officials is that whooping cough is largely preventable by immunization, but all of the confirmed cases so far have involved children who were not immunized.

"I think they are taking a chance their child could get seriously ill. Who's at greatest risk are children in an outbreak community," Naus said.

Officials with Interior Health said the West Kootenay has the lowest immunization rates in the region, with about one third of parents choosing not to get the free DTaP-IPV vaccine for their kids, compared with about one quarter for the rest of the region.

Interior Health and the BC Center for Disease Control are expected to announce a strategy to deal with the outbreak on Thursday.

"We're not seeing any activity yet in the East Kootenay or the Okanagan. It is spotted all over the West Kootenay. Whatever measures we have to take will affect the Kootenay Boundary [region]," said Parker.