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Whooping cough outbreak hits
Infants under one are especially vulnerable to catching preventable disease

Michele LeTourneau
Northern News Services
Monday, July 25, 2016

Summer day camp is cancelled in Hall Beach until the whooping cough outbreak that has overcome 22 people in that community fades away.

NNSL photo/graphic

Nunavut's chief medical officer of health, Kim Barker, says outbreaks of whooping cough tend to occur every six to seven years but vaccination is recommended because the illness can be life threatening for infants under one year of age. - photo courtesy of Nunavut Department of Health

"We closed the camp because that is the age group that is the most susceptible and that we've seen the cases in," said hamlet senior administrative officer Kimberley Young early last week.

"We've done it out of precaution so that we could stop the spread of the disease as quickly as we could."

Iqaluit, meanwhile, has 29 confirmed cases. The community of Pond Inlet experienced an outbreak of its own in May, but never hit that high number, with only approximately 13 cases reported.

Young says the hamlet is following the lead of Nunavut's chief medical officer of health, Kim Barker.

"She's letting us know where their thoughts are. As a hamlet we want to be proactive in trying to stem this as quickly as we can."

Young adds the hamlet has resumed evening sports open to anyone over the age of 14. Nunavut News/North spoke with Barker July 21. She said the numbers change daily at this point.

So far, the outbreak has been limited to Hall Beach, Iqaluit and Pond Inlet. And there is no sign of the illness outside the Baffin region.

"But I see that other communities are starting to submit swabs. It's good to observe for any potential activity so that we can squash it early," said Barker.

Barker says if more than 90 per cent of the population is vaccinated for whooping cough, also called pertussis, it's not seen as often.

"But it's not that unusual every six to seven years to see it reemerge again."

Infants should be vaccinated at two months, four months, six months and 18 months of age, again between the ages of four and six, then again in Grade 9. These are available at health centres.

"Our population that we're most worried about are the infants under the age of one because they get very sick and it is possible for them to die from it," said Barker. "They get such severe respiratory distress. Their lungs are so small already that if you start plugging them up with any kind of bacteria and mucous it makes it very difficult for them to breath."

says there are a lot of infants in Nunavut.

"That's why we're so worried. We want to protect them."

That means pregnant women in their last trimester should be vaccinated, because some of the immunity can transfer from the mother to the unborn child. Barker says half of the diagnosed cases are between the ages of nine and 15, "but it's not unusual to have those kids have younger siblings and newborns in the house."

quoteOvercrowded housingquote

Nova Scotia, Ontario, Alberta and the Northwest Territories have all experienced outbreaks, but Nunavut is especially vulnerable.

"The overcrowded housing will increase the likelihood of spread and increase the likelihood of spread to young infants. That's probably why we see it blossoming as quickly as it is," said Barker.

"That's why we are making such an effort to get everyone treated and as many people vaccinated as we possibly can. Especially pregnant moms, and households where there are small children."

Extra vaccines have been ordered for pregnant women, as have extra adult boosters.

"We're encouraging people that are sick to go either to their health centre or to emergency in Iqaluit," said Barker.

The Department of Health says there have no deaths as a result of the whooping cough outbreak.

Meanwhile, in Hall Beach, the community is doing what it can to keep the children between the ages of six to 13 busy.

"The kids that are healthy are still outside playing and they're running around. If we could hold the day camp outside only, then we could look at trying to run it. The problem is we can't be outside every day, all day long," said Young.

"We have tried to put together some spontaneous (activity). We've tried to plan to have staff available on a moment's notice if, say, there are 20 kids over there, let's go do something outside with them. A soccer game or a baseball game or something.

"We're just trying to keep them busy and engaged so they have something to do during the day so that they're not getting themselves into trouble."

Currently, there is no immunization registry in the territory and Barker hopes to get one up and running.

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