COVINGTON — Little Colbi Jayne Rains has only been alive for three months. She’s been in the hospital, struggling to breathe, for one-third of her life.
Colbi Jayne has pertussis, otherwise known as whooping cough. She gets coughing spells that knock the breath out of her and make her turn blue. Sometimes, she can only recover with the aid of oxygen. That’s why she’s been at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston since June 11.
“She’s doing better day by day. Some days are good, some days are not as good,” said her mother, Kimberli Rains, a Newton County resident.
About four weeks ago, Rains said her daughter developed a cough that “sounded like a typical cough when you first get a cold.” The cough progressively got worse, and within a week, Colbi Jayne was in the emergency room. She was transferred to Children’s Healthcare pediatric intensive care unit. Rains and her daughter Gracie have been keeping a daily vigil at the hospital for the last month. “I live here,” Rains said.
Health officials have confirmed five cases of pertussis in Newton County so far this year, with three of those tied to a local church.
“Due to our commitment to protecting the privacy of those who are impacted, we are unable to provide the name of the church,” said Karen Shields, public information officer for the Newton Health Department.
“In response to the illness, church members were provided with information on the signs and symptoms of pertussis. The church has been cooperative and proactive in distributing this information to their congregation,” Shields said, adding that the three cases confirmed in the church investigation have not been hospitalized. Onset for the cases ranged from April 25 to June 16. There have been no new confirmed cases reported in Newton County this month, she said.
Pertussis cases are on the increase in Georgia, and in the Atlanta area in particular, according to Dr. James Fortenberry, pediatrician-in-chief at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston. “We’re on track to double the number of pertussis cases this year from last year, so it definitely has heightened our concern about it and made us want to be sure folks are aware of the importance of vaccination, both of their children and of themselves,” he said.
Fotenberry said Children’s Healthcare is seeing six to 10 positive cultures per month and, “Lots of children getting this have to be in the hospital for a little while.”
Fortenberry said the increase in cases is primarily related to decreased vaccination rates. “Some of it may be due to patterns of movement in certain populations that are less likely to be vaccinated,” he said. “A big part of it is probably that less and less adults are getting boosters and so it’s more prevalent out in the community.”
For adults, pertussis can manifest in a chronic cough that may be bothersome, but is generally not life-threatening. For babies however, pertussis results in very severe coughing spells, sometimes accompanied by a “whoop” sound — hence the name whooping cough. Babies can have difficulty breathing, can stop breathing, turn blue and vomit when coughing.
Whooping cough vaccines are recommended for all kids and adults.
Babies should be vaccinated at 2, 4 and 6 months. But they can still get pertussis during that time because their immune systems are so fragile, Fortenberry said. The fourth shot is given at 15 through 18 months of age, and a fifth shot is given when a child enters school, at 4 through 6 years of age. The vaccination is called DTaP and protects children against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. A booster, called Tdap, is scheduled at age 11 or 12.
Immunity to pertussis wanes over time, so adults should get boosters every 10 years in the form of the Tdap vaccine for tetnus and pertussis.
Fortenberry said it’s especially important or women who are planning to become pregnant or are pregnant to make sure immunizations are up to date. If they don’t obtain a booster during pregnancy, they should do so immediately after their baby is born, he said.
That’s something Rains said she wished she had known.
“It was not offered to me,” she said. “I’ve been told that if I’d had even a little when I was pregnant it would have given her some kind of defense. If you are pregnant, definitely ask for it. If you are around small children or babies, everybody needs a booster shot so they can stay protected,” she said.
Fortenberry confirmed that all family members of newborns should have immunizations up to date.
If you believe your child has been exposed to pertussis, speak to your family doctor or pediatrician right away, he advised. Antibiotics may be prescribed for those affected by whooping cough, including immediate family members, even if they are not exhibiting symptoms.
Children who become severely ill will need to be in the hospital for monitoring during coughing episodes and may be required to be on breathing machines.