Monday January 14, 2013

BENNINGTON -- Whooping cough vaccination clinics held across the state in mid-December were widely attended, according to a state epidemiologist and Vermont, along with much of the country, is now in the middle of a strong flu season.

Whooping cough and the flu are different diseases, with the cough being caused by a bacterial infection and the flu being caused by a virus.

In late December the Department of Health urged all Vermonters over 11 years old, and especially those over 19, to get a whooping cough vaccination. To ensure people could get vaccinated, the state ordered an extra 3,500 doses of the whooping cough vaccine and made them available for free at any one of the department’s 12 field offices.

Dr. Patsy Kelso, state epidemiologist for infectious disease, said statewide 3,269 doses were administered, mostly to adults, with 187 people in Bennington County being among the inoculated.

"Those numbers make us very happy," said Kelso, who said the shots are still available at the district offices if one makes an appointment. She said most children get them anyway when they enter the school system, but the protection the vaccine offers wanes over time. Vermont has been experiencing a whooping cough epidemic and it’s believed that adults are spreading the disease. The department announced in December that 522 cases of whooping cough had been reported in 2012, which is 10 times above the norm.

Kelso said the number of cases reported in the new year, as of Jan. 5, was six, which she said marks a slump. She said it’s not possible to say whether or not the vaccinations have had an impact. The vaccine, known as Tdap, was approved for use in 2005 and also protects against diphtheria. Those who have been vaccinated against tetanus can also get Tdap, which while not offering 100 percent protection will at least lessen the severity of the illness.

Kelso said in terms of the flu, this year is more on track with previous years. Last year, she said, was a lull for people reporting flu-like symptoms and respiratory illness.

"Everyone age 6 months and older should be vaccinated against seasonal flu," said Kelso "Flu can be a serious illness, especially for the very young and very old, and a typical season can last well into March."

She said 60,000 doses of the flu vaccine have been distributed to pediatricians. People under 18 can also get a free flu shot at their local health department district office if they make an appointment.

According to the Associated Press, three adults died in Vermont of the flu in December, and as of last week 20 percent of hospital visits involved respiratory illness while 5 percent of doctor’s office visits were in regards to flu-like symptoms. Ten people died of the flu in 2012, seven in 2011, and none in 2010. There have been no reported vaccine shortages and no one area of the state appears to have been hit harder than another.

Eileen Druckenmiller, a spokeswoman for Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, said the hospital is seeing an increase in the volume of flu patients but not at undue levels. She said no visitor restrictions are in effect but people who have been ill in the past 30 days are asked to avoid putting off their visit if possible and not to come in groups larger than four. She said people should also observe a number of techniques to curb the spread of flu.

According to the health department, those techniques include:

* Covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze and doing so into a tissue or your elbow.

* Washing your hands frequently, especially after a sneeze or cough, or use alcohol-based hand wipes or sanitizers.

* Stay home when you’re sick.

More information is available at www.healthvermont.gov. The health department can also be followed on Twitter or Facebook.