JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -

The Duval County Health Department is monitoring an increase in reported cases of pertussis, or whooping cough.

Health officials said that while the rise in local cases is not unusual -- there are 16 this year compared to the average of 12 -- it is important for parents to follow required immunization recommendations.

Pertussis is a bacterial illness that is easily spread person to person by coughs and sneezes. People sick with pertussis may have severe coughing attacks that can last for months.

Pertussis in children and adults starts with a cough and runny nose for one to two weeks, followed by weeks to months of rapid coughing fits that sometimes end with a whooping sound. Some people may develop a low-grade fever, but this tends to be rare.

"That might sound like a cold, doesn't seem like that big of deal, but after about one to two weeks, generally you can develop bouts of coughing where you just cough really hard, and then when you take a deep breath, you breathe in and it sounds kind of like a whoop," said Karen Elliott, of the Health Department.

Health officials said vaccination is the best defense against whooping cough. However, the protection from vaccines wears off over time, and few teens and adults receive booster vaccines to continue protection.

As a result, pertussis continues to circulate, causing hospitalization and death of infants who are too young to get their shots. The pertussis vaccine is safe for children and adults.

The vaccination series can begin when an infant is 6 weeks old. Infants, however, are not completely protected by vaccination until the first series of three shots is complete.

Children need five doses of diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTaP) by kindergarten (ages 4-6) and a tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis (Tdap) booster by age 11 or 12. All teens and adults are also recommended to receive one Tdap booster, especially if they have contact with any infants.

Pregnant women may be vaccinated against pertussis before pregnancy, during pregnancy or after giving birth. Fathers may be vaccinated at any time, but preferably before the birth of their baby.

"If it can be passed on from me to my child, then it would be very important if they have it then I can get it, or if I can get it and they don't have the vaccination, then that can be another epidemic," said Sharanda Harper, a concerned mother. "So it can just be an ongoing circle, like colds at a day care, it just goes around and around."

Other prevention measures include:

  • If you are sick with a respiratory illness, limit contact with other people. It is also important to keep infants away from people who are sick with a respiratory illness.
  • If someone who has close contact with you is diagnosed with pertussis, it is recommended that you take appropriate antibiotics, even if you are in good health and fully vaccinated.
  • If you have an illness with a bad cough or a cough that lasts a long time, it is recommended that you go to see a healthcare provider, that you ask about pertussis and find out if you should be tested for it.

For more information about the DTaP or Tdap vaccination, contact the Duval County Health Department Immunization Center at 904-253-1420, or go to www.dchd.net/immunizations.htm.

If you or a family member has recently been diagnosed with pertussis, contact the Duval County Health Department Epidemiology Program at 904-253-1850 for more information.

For more information on pertussis, go to www.dchd.net/pertussis.htm or www.cdc.gov/pertussis/ or call the DCHD at 904-253-1850.