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Whooping cough crosses county lines in WNC; Transylvania confirms outbreak

BPR news graphic showing whooping cough outbreaks reported by public health officials as of May 8, 2024 in Western North Carolina.
BPR news graphic showing whooping cough outbreaks reported by public health officials as of May 8, 2024 in Western North Carolina.

A second county in Western North Carolina is now grappling with a whooping cough outbreak, with Transylvania Public Health confirming 21 cases of pertussis among children on Thursday. Public health staff are working with health care providers, schools and childcare centers to identify possible exposures to pertussis and notify parents.

An outbreak in Henderson County, first reported in early April, has surged to over 80 confirmed cases.

Tara Rybka, the Transylvania health department’s public information officer, told BPR that while there isn't a direct link to the Henderson County outbreak, ties through work, school and travel make it challenging to rule out any possible connections.

“While several of these cases attend local childcare centers and schools, this is considered a community outbreak,” Rybka stressed.

Neighboring Buncombe County has reported a handful of cases, while no cases have been reported in Polk County so far.

Whooping cough, or pertussis, spreads easily through coughs and sneezes, posing a significant risk, especially to infants and those with weakened immune systems. It can take up to three weeks for symptoms to appear, and they often mimic those of the common cold, making detection challenging.

Henderson County Nursing Director Crystal O'Dell explained to BPR that when a case is diagnosed, the health department recommends preventive antibiotics to everyone in the household, even if they are vaccinated. Antibiotics enhance protection beyond vaccination due to the vaccine's waning effectiveness over time.

“I do believe that when school goes out of session, it will help some,” said Odell. “But I don't feel like we've reached the peak of this outbreak yet.”

Health officials in both counties stress the importance of up-to-date vaccinations, particularly recommending the Tdap booster shot for older children and adults to protect themselves and infants around them. They advise those needing vaccinations to contact healthcare providers or local health departments promptly.

For further information on pertussis, visit

Helen Chickering is a host and reporter on Blue Ridge Public Radio. She joined the station in November 2014.
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