08/07/2012 07:31 EDT | Updated 10/07/2012 05:12 EDT

B.C. parents warned of back-to-school whooping cough

Vancouver Coastal Health is warning parents of children entering kindergarten to get them vaccinated against whooping cough before school starts this year, due to an ongoing outbreak of the disease.

Since last November, more than 200 cases of whooping cough — also known as pertussis — have been reported in the Vancouver Coastal Health area, and four of them required hospitalization.

Vancouver medical health officer Dr. Réka Gustafson said 27 new cases were reported in July, and she expects the number of cases to jump when school resumes in September.

"We would like parents to think of immunization before their children go back to school. When you get a group of children who spend six hours a day together, that is the opportunity for infections to spread," she said.

Whooping cough presents like a normal cold but after a few weeks becomes a long, dry cough. While mostly an annoyance for adults, it can be very serious for children.

Although there is a growing reluctance to vaccinate, Gustafson said it's the safest way to prevent disease.

"It's much more preferable to have a vaccine than, for example, to have to use an antibiotic to treat an infection," she said.

The vaccination, which is usually effective for between four and 10 years, is available for free at public health clinics or from family doctors.

While early treatment of whooping cough with antibiotics is very effective, it is unclear whether they have any effect in the later stages of the disease.

If left untreated, whooping cough can lead to the development of pneumonia, which can be fatal.