Cases of pertussis, also known as “whooping cough,” have reached epidemic levels in California, and experts are saying the state is on track to suffer the most illness and death from the disease in 50 years. “We’re really on course to see a large number of cases,” says Eileen Yamada, M.D., with the state’s Department of Public Health.
As of June 15, the number of cases of whooping cough had quadrupled over this time last year, reaching 910. Five babies – all under 3 months old – have died from the disease. Public health officials are urging Californians to do the following:
Check your children’s vaccination status. Immunization against pertussis (the shot is generally called DTaP and protects against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis) is given at 2, 4, 6 and 15-18 months, 4-6 years and 11-12 years.
Get your own pertussis shot. The immunity from your childhood vaccinations wears off after a few years, and even having the disease doesn’t give you lifetime immunity. A booster shot for adults (combined with a vaccine against tetanus) was licensed in 2005. So if you haven’t had a tetanus shot lately, you might be vulnerable to whooping cough, too. Ask your doctor.
‘Cocoon’ your babies. They’re the ones at greatest risk if they get sick. And even though they can get their first pertussis shot at 2 months, infants don’t build enough immunity to fend off the disease until their third shot at 6 months. The only way to protect the youngest babies is to make sure everyone who has regular contact with them has been vaccinated. “We know that babies typically get pertussis from an adolescent or an adult family member,” Yamada says. “The more people we get vaccinated, the more protection we’ll have in the community.” Pregnant women should also be vaccinated.
Do all this now. We are headed into the heaviest season for pertussis – late summer and early fall – and all signs point to a tough year. You won’t necessarily notice a case of whooping cough coming on. It starts with cold-like symptoms that can last as long as a week before the trademark cough (severe and rapid-fire, often ending with a “whoop” sound) shows up. “It can be quite deceiving early on,” says Yamada, and meanwhile, you’re contagious. “They may spread the disease before they even think they have whooping cough.”
Again, the greatest risk from pertussis is to young babies, and they’re the ones you are really protecting when you and your older children are vaccinated. Complications from pertussis can include convulsions, bleeding in the brain, brain damage from lack of oxygen, and death. “Luckily, fatalities are still pretty rare,” says Yamada. “But if this is your child that one death in your family is devastating.”
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