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Wednesday, 25 July 2012 10:24

Family urges residents to vaccinate their children

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The Whitehead family, who reside in Southern Alberta, are hoping by sharing their story, more families will choose to keep their routine immunizations up to date.


On June 23, Jessica Whitehead lost her one-month-old daughter Harper, from complications of pertussis, otherwise known as whooping cough.
Dani Whitehead spoke on behalf of her sister Jessica, about the family’s loss.
“Our family has been through a terrible tragedy,” she said. “This didn’t have to happen.”
Harper was born a healthy baby on May 22 and mother and daughter enjoyed two weeks of time at home before Harper became ill. A few days after becoming sick, she began coughing and was quickly hospitalized in Lethbridge. Once it was discovered she had pertussis, she was transferred to Alberta Children’s Hospital where she was kept medically sedated.
On June 23, she died from complications of pertussis.
“This is a real disease and it can be prevented if families are being immunized,” said Dani. “We really just want to urge the public to make sure their immunizations are up to date. Have your children immunized.”
In a news release Dani added, “We are hopeful sharing our story will send a message to people who don’t think this disease is real and choose not to be immunized or have their children immunized. This is real. Harper was a perfect and beautiful baby and like any other family, we’d already begun to cherish her — now she’s gone and we believe this didn’t have to happen.”
In March, Alberta Health Services declared a pertussis outbreak in the south zone. So far, there have been 42 confirmed cases of the disease, but officials believe there are likely more which are undetected.
For the first one to two weeks of infection, the individual will have a normal cold with a mild cough. That cough then becomes more aggressive where especially in children it turns into the tell-tale whooping sound when a child breathes in. Because pertussis releases a toxin that irritates the lungs, it more seriously effects infants, says Dr. Strong, acting medical officer of health for the south zone.
“Pertussis can have serious consequences in children under one year of age,” he said. “The most at-risk children are under three months because they don’t have full immunity.”
Dr. Strong said vaccination is the best tool officials have to ward off pertussis, which is highly contagious. The higher the immunization rate amongst the population, the greater the chance the spread of the disease is limited.
“It creates ‘herd immunity’ meaning there is a broad level of coverage so pertussis can’t spread into the community.”
Cases of whooping cough seem to be clustered in various communities in southern Alberta including Raymond, Taber, Vauxhall, Coaldale, Bow Island, Fort Macleod and Picture Butte. That is where vaccination clinics were focused earlier this summer and this past week for families as well as caregivers of children.
“By vaccinating the parents and caregivers with a pertussis booster, there is a decreased risk to the child contracting the disease from the people close to them,” said Dr. Strong in a news release.
AHS officials are also communicating with new moms, their families and other at-risk populations in the zone to encourage immunization.
Pertussis immunization is part of the DTaP (Diphtheria, Tetanus, acellular Pertussis) vaccine and is recommended at two, four, six and 18 months; at four to six years; and again in Grade 9. Albertans who have not received the Grade 9 dose are eligible for a free, one-time adult dose of vaccine.
Anyone concerned about immunization should contact his or her local health unit.
A declining trend in immunizing children is appearing in Alberta and it’s concerning to health officials.
Dr. Strong pointed out in the South zone in 2007, the immunization coverage rate was 76 per cent, but in 2010 that decreased to 67 per cent.
“There’s been a reduced uptake of those routine vaccinations for various reasons.”
General inquiries about pertussis can be answered by phoning Health Link Alberta at 1-866-408-5465.

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Rose Sanchez

Assistant Managing Editor