British Columbia

'We were losing control of the situation': lessons from a B.C. whooping cough outbreak

A new study outlining an outbreak of whooping cough that occurred on Haida Gwaii in 2014, is calling for more clarity on how the province handles outbreaks.

Between February and August 2014, there were 123 probable and confirmed cases of whooping cough on Haida Gwaii

Whooping cough is the common name for the highly contagious bacterial disease pertussis. Symptoms include fever and severe coughing. (CBC News)

A new study that looks at the 2014 whooping cough outbreak on Haida Gwaii calls for more clarity on how the province handles outbreaks.

"On review, it was determined to be the most intense outbreak of the condition in Canada that year," Dr. Tracy Morton, lead author of the study, told Daybreak North host guest host Andrew Kurjata.

Between February and August 2014, there were 123 probable and confirmed cases of whooping cough on Haida Gwaii.

Morton is a physician in Queen Charlotte City on Haida Gwaii and clinical assistant professor in the faculty of medicine at the University of British Columbia.

Whooping cough is the common name for the highly contagious bacterial disease pertussis. Symptoms include fever and severe coughing.

How to declare a disease outbreak

The process of declaring an outbreak occurs at the health authority level. The region's health officer tracks lab results and compares the results against standard rates of infection.

If these rates go above normal, the health officer can choose to declare an outbreak.    

But during the outbreak in 2014, there was no northern health officer, according to Morton. The person in the position had retired and had yet to be replaced.

"We'd have 30 to 50 people coming in [with whooping cough]. It really felt like we were losing control of the situation."

Dr. Thomas Piggott is a strong advocate for vaccines. He said they are the best way to protect your child from illnesses that we rarely see anymore, like chicken pox and measles. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

Morton said that there was some lack of understanding among public health officials on Haida Gwaii of what it would mean if they did declare an outbreak.

The outcome

Eventually an interim public health officer was appointed and the outbreak was declared in May. Health care professionals immediately received resources from the province.

They received recommendations around how to quarantine those in treatment, and immunized close to 300 people who were either at high risk for the disease or care providers, according to Morton.

Morton told the CBC that Haida Gwaii has experienced a small anti-vaccination movement in recent years. But he found that people became very receptive to vaccinations during the whooping cough outbreak.

The number of people with whooping cough drastically decreased after the outbreak was declared.

"Really coordinated care can bring a condition under control," said Morton.

Listen to the full interview here:

With files from Daybreak North