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October 4, 2012

Bassett, new dads take aim at whooping cough

Richard Whitby

---- — Bassett Medical Center in Cooperstown is taking an innovative approach to slow the spread of whooping cough in the region by vaccinating new fathers.

“Young fathers oftentimes don’t get health care,” Dr. Chris Kjolhede, a pediatrician at the hospital said. “That’s an era of their lives where they don’t regularly see a physician. They may not have had an immunization against pertussis since they were in school. So, they are a likely target to immunize.”

And while they may not be especially threatened by the disease, the threat is real and potentially deadly for their newborn children.

“Infants are the ones that we’re most concerned about,” Kjolhede said. “That’s why we’re targeting dads at the birthing center, when they’re looking at this newborn baby and saying, ‘I’ll do anything to take care of this baby.’”

That’s the impetus for the hospital’s “Tdap for Dads,” program, in which new fathers will be offered the Tdap vaccine – a vaccine that also protects against tetanus and diphtheria.

Known medically as pertussis, whooping cough is a bacterial disease that can cause young children who haven’t completed their immunization cycle to stop breathing, Kjolhede said.

The symptoms including violent coughing fits, after which the victim often must gasp for air, resulting in the “whoop” sound that gives pertussis its common name.

“The sad thing about the disease is that it looks like a bad cold at the beginning, when (it’s) most infectious,” Kjolhede said.

Until now, new or expectant mothers who needed the vaccination received it during the prenatal process or during their hospital stays. Fathers, even when they expressed interest in receiving the immunization, were referred to their primary-care physicians. Now, they’ll be offered the vaccine at the hospital’s birthing center.

Whooping cough had struck 1,920 state residents outside New York City this year as of Aug. 31, said Peter Constantakes, a spokesman for the state Health Department. In 2010, 721 cases were reported.

The rising incidence has several possible explanations. One is waning immunity among people who haven’t had their immunizations updated. Another reason could be that the disease appears to run in three- to five-year cycles, Constantakes said. And yet another is that, in adults, the symptoms are easily confused with other diseases.

“An adult can get pertussis and maybe not know it,” Constantakes said. “They’ll get a cough and just figure, ‘This is a bad cough.’”

The bacteria live in the back of the throats and in the noses of people, Kjolhede said.

“So, there are always people walking around with the bacteria,” he said. “You never complete eradicate it from the environment. We need to continue to be vigilant and immunize the population again it.”

“If you are an adult who will be coming into contact with children before they go to kindergarten … you need to get vaccinated,” he added.

Whooping cough is not seasonal. Antibiotic treatment for its victims only serves to make an individual case less contagious, Kjolhede said.

Otsego County had nine cases as of Aug. 31, Delaware had four and Chenango and Schohaies counties had six apiece, Constantakes said.