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Whooping cough epidemic prompts outreach to California's ethnic communities

July 15, 2010 | 11:05 am

A whooping cough epidemic that has claimed the lives of five Latino infants this year has prompted California health officials to launch an outreach campaign in minority communities, they said Thursday.

The California Department of Public Health is distributing educational material and news releases in different languages and hosting roundtables for ethnic media representatives, who could help spread the word about the disease and its prevention, said Dr. Juan, Ruiz, chief of preparedness and response for the department's communicable disease control division.

"The most important is to send out the message that people should be vaccinated," Ruiz said. "This is a disease that can be controlled and can be prevented with vaccination."

California health officials announced last month that whooping cough, also known as pertussis, was at epidemic levels and that the state could record the highest number of illnesses and death due to the disease in 50 years.

The infection of the respiratory system is highly contagious and typically starts with a cough, sneezing and runny nose for one or two weeks, followed by coughing spells, which can last weeks or months.

In general, rates of the disease are highest in infants less than 6 months old, according to health statistics. Disproportionately high rates also have been seen in whites 7 to 18 years old.

Broad outreach started a couple of months ago and emphasis was being put on targeting Spanish- and Chinese-language communities, said Al Lundeen, a spokesman for the state health department.

As of June 30, 1,337 cases of whooping cough have been reported in California, health officials said. The figure represents a five-fold increase over the 258 cases reported during the same period in 2009. An additional 700 cases were then under investigation at local health agencies.

The five infants who died were all about 2 months old at the onset of the disease, and included two in Los Angeles County and one in San Bernardino County.

-- Ann M. Simmons