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Families urged to immunize for whooping cough

news conference

Dani Whitehead and Dr. David Strong speak to reporters Thursday during a news conference at Lethbridge Community Health.

Families in Fort Macleod and across southern Alberta were urged Thursday to have their children vaccinated for whooping cough.
The family of a one-month-old girl who died from whooping cough, or pertussis as it is formally known, shared their tragic story to highlight the importance of immunization.
Harper Whitehead was a healthy seven pound 15 ounce baby girl.
“About 10 days after her birth, Harper started coughing,” aunt Dani Whitehead said. “We all thought it was a cold.”
The family got the stunning news Harper had whooping cough. Harper was hospitalized because her cough was so severe.
For most of her time in Alberta Children’s Hospital was spent medically sedated and paralyzed. She died June 23.
“We as a family aren’t looking for attention from this tragic event,” Whitehead said. “We want to make people aware that this is a real disease.”
“This, and other diseases like it, can be prevented.”
Dr. David Strong, acting medical officer of health for the south zone of Alberta Health Services, praised the family for coming forward with their story.
“Immunization is a choice, obviously, parents have to make for their children,” Strong said. “But in the public health community we feel that’s a very important choice because it can prevent this kind of tragedy from occurring.”
A pertussis outbreak was declared in March throughout the Alberta Health Services south zone, where 42 cases have been reported. Typically one to three cases are reported each year in the south zone.
“Our immunization program is the most effective tool that we have,” Strong said.
Whooping cough immunization is recommended at two, four, six and 18 months; at four to six years; and again in Grade 9.
An immunization clinic for care-givers will be held from 4-7 p.m. Wednesday, July 25 at Fort Macleod Community Health.
Care-givers include anyone who provides direct care to children, including grandparents, nannies and staff from child care facilities. Children will not be immunized at the clinic.
Strong said the goal is to create a “cocoon” of vaccinated people around newborns.
Whooping cough or pertussis causes severe coughing that can last for months. It is transmitted through droplets, usually by coughing.
Infants under three months of age are at the highest risk of whooping cough-related hospitalization and death as they have virtually no immunity to this disease.
“It really is an infection with serious consequences for children under one year of age,” Strong said.
Infants under six months of age represent close to 90 per cent of all deaths.
Women who are in their last trimester of pregnancy are at risk of spreading the illness to their babies.
In Alberta, immunization against pertussis is available, free of charge, through the routine childhood immunization program.
Strong said the vaccine is 85 per cent effective.
“I feel strongly obviously that you should immunize,” said Dani Whitehead, who is the sister of Harper’s mother Jessica.
Whitehead said Harper was healthy when she was born and when she was home for the first two weeks.
“She was happy, healthy and smiling,” Whitehead said. “Then she got sick. When she got sick we couldn’t pick her up.”
When Harper was in hospital, there were some days the family was not allowed to touch her because it caused her more stress.
“It’s a real disease and it’s out there and families have to be aware of it,” Whitehead said.
Parents with children who have not received their age appropriate vaccine against pertussis should contact their local public health office to arrange for immunization.
General inquiries about pertussis can be answered by calling Health Link Alberta at 1-866-408-5465.

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