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Whooping cough outbreak grows in Alberta: ‘Any rise in cases is concerning’

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A whooping cough outbreak in Alberta continues to grow and it comes at a time when UNICEF is warning that the public’s perception of the importance of routine childhood vaccinations has decreased by eight per cent in Canada, compared to before the pandemic.

An outbreak of pertussis, also known as whooping cough, was first declared in January in the province’s south zone.

In early April there were 114 identified cases with the majority being children.

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Whooping cough spreading across southern Alberta: AHS

There are now 126 cases, 122 in the south zone and four cases confirmed in the central zone.

“Whooping cough is extremely dangerous for young kids. They end up on ventilators and sometimes they don’t survive, so any rise in cases is concerning,” said Shannon MacDonald, associate professor in the faculty of nursing and the school of public health at the University of Alberta.

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Pertussis is a bacterial infection that causes severe coughing that lasts for weeks. It can impact people of all ages, but infants are at greatest risk of serious complications.

Experts say pertussis isn’t as contagious as measles, but a 90 per cent vaccination rate is still needed to ensure a level of herd immunity.

Click to play video: 'Alberta students' routine immunizations fell behind during the COVID-19 pandemic'

Alberta students’ routine immunizations fell behind during the COVID-19 pandemic

The Alberta cases are in Willingdon, Red Deer, Lethbridge, Coaldale, Taber, Vauxhall, Grassy Lake, Bow Island, County of Forty Mile, Seven Persons, and Fort Macleod.

Alberta Health Services said many of these communities have significantly low childhood immunization rates.

“We have seen a pattern of periodic rise in cases, but it’s usually related to lower vaccine coverage rates, so when we see drops in vaccine coverage we see a rise in cases. The pandemic has certainly played a part in that,” MacDonald said. “We saw that the pandemic certainly resulted in lower vaccine coverage, because of all the barriers that parents faced with accessing vaccination services.”

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Dr. Jia Hu is a public health and preventive medicine specialist and adjunct professor at the University of Calgary.

He said the pertussis outbreak is a real life example of how vaccine-preventable diseases increase when vaccination rates are low.

Hu said most jurisdictions experienced a decline in childhood vaccination uptake in part due to access during the pandemic and, to a lesser extent, confidence in vaccines.

“We have seen to some extent a greater concern about vaccines than before. We worry that the (sentiment about) COVID vaccine is spilling into other vaccines,” Hu said.

Click to play video: 'Pertussis outbreak spreads across Alberta'

Pertussis outbreaks spread across Alberta

A new report issued by UNICEF said that confidence in vaccination against diseases such as measles, polio and tetanus fell in 52 out of 55 countries surveyed.

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The proportion of Canadians who think childhood immunizations are important has decreased from 90 per cent to 82 per cent over the last three years, according to the report.

“It means that more children are going to get sick. It’s going to affect their lives as we go ahead,” said David Morley president and CEO of UNICEF Canada. “It’s such a large drop in confidence in a short time and that’s extremely concerning.”

China, India and Mexico were the only countries studied where people’s confidence in childhood vaccines stayed the same or improved, UNICEF’s report said.

Morley said stronger action is needed to boost childhood immunization and prevent vaccine confidence from further slipping away.

“There are some communities that are less open to getting vaccinated and it’s hard to sometimes change minds there. So I think different strategies are needed in a community where there’s a lot of reticence about vaccination, versus the general population where acceptance is relatively high,” MacDonald said.

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