CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Although West Virginia hasn't experienced an outbreak of whooping cough, state health officials said residents should be concerned that other parts of the country have declared it an epidemic.
So far in 2012, there have been 60 investigated cases of whooping cough, also known as pertussis, in the state, according to the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department. Last year, 102 pertussis cases were reported.
Pertussis is a contagious disease that is spread through coughing and sneezing while in close contact with other people. Among vaccine-preventable diseases, pertussis is one of the most commonly occurring ones in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In April, the Washington State Department of Health declared a pertussis epidemic. More than 3,000 confirmed cases were reported there from Jan. 1 to June 30, according to the CDC. In that same time period in 2011, only 297 pertussis cases were reported in that state.
West Virginia has typically seen a low number of reported pertussis cases in the past: In 2010, there were 178 reported cases; 43 cases in 2009; and 11 cases in 2008.
Only three pertussis cases have been reported in Kanawha County this year, said Dr. Rahul Gupta, executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.
"Just because we have low numbers, our county is one disease outbreak away. You can have one good outbreak and have several hundred pertussis cases in weeks," Gupta said. "Having low numbers is a good thing, but we don't want to put our red flag down. If it can happen in Washington, it can happen in West Virginia."
Gupta said one reason for the rise in pertussis cases in the United States is simply that the disease is being detected more.
There are many more pertussis cases that occur, but they aren't always reported, he said. The disease starts like the common cold, with a runny nose or congestion, sneezing and a mild cough or fever, according to the CDC. After a week or two, a severe cough -- often followed by violent, rapid coughing fits -- begins. The sick person is forced to inhale, creating a loud "whooping" sound.
The disease is treated with antibiotics, but some people are better before they even realize they have the infection, Gupta said.
"We thought before, if you got a shot as a child then you'd never need another shot again,
Gupta said. "We are finding more detection than we used to before."
Certain areas - such as Washington state -- become more vulnerable to the disease when people do not keep their shots up to date, Gupta said. A low level of community immunity makes pertussis spread easily, which turns into an outbreak, he said.
"If we have lower vaccination rates -- which we do in West Virginia -- it's a recipe for a good outbreak," said Janet Briscoe, director of epidemiology for the KCHD. "That's why we're pushing this idea for getting as many people immunized."
State epidemiologist Loretta Haddy said the obvious method for avoiding the vaccine-preventable disease is vaccination. Haddy said the pertussis outbreaks throughout the nation are a warning for West Virginians who have yet to get a vaccination.
"It's a warning. It's an educational message. If you haven't received a dose of TDaP, you should, because it's preventable by the vaccine," Haddy said. "I'm not saying it's 100 percent, because it's not. No vaccine gives you 100 percent protection."