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Five babies die of whooping cough; epidemic declared in California

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Have you seen the new public service commercials about whooping cough (which is another name for pertussis)? Or, rather, have you heard them? You can barely concentrate on the images or the voiceover because of the sounds of a baby coughing in the background. And it is a horrible, huge, wheezing, painful cough. It’s clearly a sound that should not be coming from a baby.

When I first saw the commercials, they made me wonder. Wasn’t whooping cough a thing of the past? Didn’t we all get vaccinated against it?

Yes. We did. But there have been times in which the support for vaccinations wanes, or in which people do not get booster shots, providing windows of opportunity for the illness to take hold again. And that’s happening now in several places across the country, with the most worrisome incidence in California, where five infants have died.

From ABC News:

"Whooping cough is now an epidemic in California," said Dr. Mark Horton, director of the California Department of Public Health, in a statement. "Children should be vaccinated against the disease and parents, family members and caregivers of infants need a booster shot."

As of June 15, a total of 910 cases had been confirmed in the state. Another 600 suspected cases are currently being investigated by local health officials, the statement indicated.

The number of pertussis cases is now on a pace to surpass the total of 3,182 seen in the most recent major outbreak, which occurred in 2005, said Ken August, spokesman for the department. He expects the state to exceed that number this year.

From the New York Times:

Dr. Gilberto Chavez, the deputy director of the department’s Center for Infectious Disease, said health officials have already seen a fourfold increase compared with 2009. And the worst may be to come.

“The peak season starts in the summer,” Dr. Chavez said, noting that July and August usually have the highest number of cases. “And we expect to see a much larger number of cases if we don’t intervene quickly.”

For five families, however, the state’s warning has come too late. Five children — all Latino and all under the age of 3 months — have died since the beginning of the year, Dr. Chavez said.

Dr. Chavez said that lack of information and inoculations in agricultural regions in the state’s Central Valley — home to many Latino farm workers — might be a culprit in the high incidence in that community. And indeed, Fresno County — in the heart of the valley — has the highest number of cases in the state, with 72 reported in May alone.

Infants are typically inoculated against pertussis at two months, but adequate protection does not occur until six months, leaving them susceptible. Boosters are recommended in middle school, adolescence and through adulthood as immunity — either from inoculation or having had the disease — diminishes over time.

Pertussis usually manifests itself slowly, like a mild cold, said Dr. Chavez, with a runny nose or mild cough, but can steadily progress into coughing fits resulting in its telltale “whoop.”

David Luchini, a spokesman for the Fresno County Department of Public Health, said health officials there were still pushing to get the word out, online and in person, particularly to adolescents and adults who might transmit the disease to infants and whose vaccinations may have waned. “That way,” he said, “you cocoon them from this.”

To learn more about whooping cough:

The ABC News story:

The New York Times story:

A doctor’s blog for the San Francisco Chronicle:

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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