The number of cases of pertussis, better known as whooping cough, continues to rise in Lane County.

Health officials and local physicians are urging the public to get vaccinated since whooping cough is highly contagious and extremely dangerous for young children, especially infants.

“Pertussis causes initially symptoms that are very similar to a cold with a cough,” says Dr. Pilar Bradshaw with Eugene Pediatric Associates. “These fits of coughing are often accompanied by a whooping inspiration for people to catch their breath.”

The pertussis bacteria produces toxins that inflame the trachea, or airway. This causes intense coughing that can last for months. In addition to infants, other high-risk populations include pregnant women, older adults, anyone who is immunocompromised or anyone with moderate to severe asthma or other lung problems.

“The sad thing about pertussis is its known as the hundred-day cough because once a person gets pertussis, they really will cough for months—horrible, awful coughing,” Dr. Bradshaw says. “Coughing that bad can cause people to break ribs, it can cause pneumonia. The more dangerous thing for little kids is it can cause them to stop breathing and develop critically low oxygen levels.”

While pertussis is highly contagious and extremely dangerous for younger children, Dr. Bradshaw says it is vaccine preventable.

But according to the Lane County Department of Health and Human Services, vaccination rates have been declining statewide since the pandemic.

The Oregon Health Authority reported a significant rise in pertussis cases. Year-to-date case counts in Oregon show approximately 170 cases of pertussis statewide and more than 60 cases in Lane County as of May 31, 2024.

Following pertussis outbreaks in 2012 and 2018, this latest spread of illness isn’t surprising, says Dr. Patrick Luedtke, senior public health officer at Lane County Health & Human Services.

“Pertussis is cyclical,” he says. “We knew we were entering the risk window and therefore we knew we had an opportunity to try and prepare for it, but the pandemic got in the way, and it was hard for some people to get vaccinated.”

Most people would benefit from getting a pertussis vaccine, Dr. Luedtke says. Vaccination not only protects you, but also helps stop the illness from spreading through the community.

Oregon is among the states that have the highest percentage of residents who decline to get vaccinated. Last school year, Oregon had the second highest nonmedical exemption rate in the country after Idaho at 12%.

“Herd immunity is this idea that if you vaccinate many of the ‘herd,’ the few that are unvaccinated will be protected by the herd having been mostly vaccinated,” Dr. Bradshaw says. “Herd immunity is something we can no longer count on in Lane County. Since Covid, we’ve seen vaccination rates steadily decline. That’s why it’s so important right now to check your child’s immunization status. If your child is up to date on their routine baby vaccines, they have been protected from pertussis as best that they can be.”

Dr. Bradshaw recommends that for children too young to be immunized parents consider avoiding indoor public areas. “Maybe give some thought to spending your time outdoors, not being inside small, enclosed spaces with a bunch of strangers that you don’t know if they are vaccinated,” she says.

Dr. Luedtke also urges parents of young children to be especially careful.

“If you have a baby 12 months or less of age, ensure that anyone who comes in contact with that baby is vaccinated,” he says. “There’s no shortage of vaccines. We want people to go out and get vaccinated, get their booster if they are eligible for one.”