LOS ANGELES (AP) — State health officials reported Thursday that California is on track to break a 55-year record for whooping cough infections in an epidemic that has already claimed the lives of nine infants.

At least 4,017 cases of the highly contagious illness have been reported in California, according to the state. Data from the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control show 11,466 cases nationwide, though the federal numbers are known to lag behind local reporting.

Whooping cough is a cyclical illness that peaks in number of infections every five years. Symptoms are similar to the common cold, making it a challenge to diagnose, which in turn makes it difficult for officials to determine if the worst has passed, said Dr. Gil Chavez, an epidemiologist for the California Department of Public Health.

A persistent cough that lasts weeks is the tell-tale symptom of the illness, which is also known as pertussis.

The state is on track to exceed the record 4,949 cases reported in 1955. The bacterial infection tends to peak during summer months, but infections could continue into coming weeks, said Chavez.

“When you have an epidemic, you have more cases circulating in our community” and there is increased opportunity for infection, he added.

The federal numbers for nationwide cases were last updated Sept. 12 and represent 519 more cases than the same period last year, according to the CDC. Other states with high numbers of infections include Texas, where health officials reported 1,783 cases, and Ohio, where federal officials reported 1,019 cases.

In South Carolina, officials reported one whooping cough death and 255 confirmed or suspected cases have been found. Epidemic levels of the illness there were seen earlier this year, but no statewide epidemic was declared.

All of the whooping cough-related deaths in California occurred in babies too young to be fully immunized against the illness, which is why parents and caretakers are being urged to get booster shots. Typically, babies are given a series of vaccinations, then receive booster shots between ages 4 and 6 and again after age 10.

Many parents forgo vaccines for their children because of concerns about autism, typically fueled by misinformation on the Internet, said Dr. Mark Sawyer, a University of California-San Diego professor and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The vaccines against whooping cough are free of the additive thimerosal, a preservative containing mercury that has been the subject of a long-running public debate about whether it can cause autism.

A federal ruling in March said there was no connection between autism and thimerosal.

“We need to remember that vaccines are probably the biggest reason that so few of us lose our children when they are young,” said Dr. Patricia Samuelson, speaking on behalf of the California Academy of Family Physicians. “They used to say in this country, ‘Don’t count your children until after they’ve had measles’ because so many would die.”

An Associated Press analysis found that 127 of the 7,174 public and private schools in California reported 2009 whooping cough immunization rates of 50 percent or less for kindergartners.

Health officials also are asking everyone over 6 months of age to get a flu vaccine this year, expanding previous guidelines that targeted vulnerable populations. The recommendation reflects federal guidelines.

This year’s influenza vaccine, Trivalent, will protect against the H1N1 virus, and two other strains of the virus, said Chavez.

In the past, flu vaccines were encouraged for immune-compromised populations, like the elderly.

The state is now experiencing sporadic flu activity, which is expected to increase in fall and winter.

Statewide, 1.8 million free vaccinations will be given through the Vaccines for Children program, and another 800,000 free doses are being distributed to local health departments.

(© CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

Comments (7)
  1. james says:

    Whooping cough occurs only children or it adults could also suffer the disease?

    1. Lisa says:

      Whooping cough is a serious bacterial disease of the respiratory system that can cause severe illness in adults and children; even death in infants. It is highly recommended that adults who are around infants get the vaccine because there is no vaccine available for newborn babies which places them in a high risk catagory. The earliest a child can get vaccinated for pertussis (whooping cough) is 2 months of age. They need a series of 3 shots in order to build the antibodies that will fight the disease for them but that takes 6 months to complete. PROTECT THE BABIES AROUND YOU! ASK YOU DOCTOR OR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER FOR A Tdap BOOSTER SHOT OR CALL THE PUBLIC HEALTH DEPARTMENT TO SEE HOW TO GET A FREE VACCINATION.

  2. Hudson says:

    Could this be whooping cough or a new emerging virus? I have been stricken with a dry cough, runny nose, livedo skin, & loss of elasticity on my skin for the last year. Whatever it is, it is contagious and I live in California.


  3. Pat says:

    Those deaths are on those crazy parents who do not immunize their children. It would not be circulating in the population – and those infants would not have fallen ill in the first place – if everyone were immunized.

    1. shane says:

      It is the responsibility of the parents who don’t immunize their children, but the biggest shame is that the children that are dead were unable to be immunized. So even if you are willing to immunize your kids, some other kids may still kill your baby!

  4. Deadeye says:

    Could this be brought into our county from the illegals that do not immunize their children?

  5. amber says:

    Most of the infants that are dying are under 9 weeks of age and are too young to be vaccinated. I am six months pregnant and my Doctor made my entire family get re-vaccinated including my parents and my grandparents.

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