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Whooping cough epidemic spurs calls for the elderly, children and pregnant women to get vaccinated [Updated]

July 19, 2010 |  1:07 pm

California public health officials on Monday strongly urged elderly adults, children and pregnant women to get vaccinated against whooping cough, citing an epidemic in the state that is on track to be the worst in 50 years.

Nearly 1,500 cases of whooping cough, or pertussis, have been reported statewide this year, five times the number of cases last year, according to Dr. Gil Chavez, the state’s epidemiologist.

Newborns under 6 months old are the most vulnerable, since even those vaccinated have yet to develop immunity, Chavez said. Five infants have died of whooping cough so far this year, all under 3 months old. Two of the deaths were in Los Angeles County.

[Updated at 2:15 p.m.: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said that none of the deaths occurred in the county.] 

A sixth possible death from whooping cough in L.A. County, also an infant, was still being investigated Monday, Chavez said. Last year, three infants died of the disease.

L.A. County has reported 289 whooping cough cases this year, including 73 confirmed infections and 54 likely infections as of July 16, according to the Department of Public Health. The county had 156 reported cases of whooping cough last year.

Pertussis infections typically peak every five years, Chavez said, and the last outbreak in California was in 2005. Since then, a booster vaccine was developed for adolescents and adults.

“It’s time for Californians to help us by getting vaccinated and protecting themselves,” Chavez said.

The California Department of Public Health on Monday recommended vaccinating not only infants but also  children age 7 and older, adults age 64 and older, women of child-bearing age before, during and immediately after pregnancy, and anyone else who may have contact with pregnant women or infants.

Dr. Jack Chou, a Baldwin Park family physician, said he was “heartened” by the new recommendations. [Updated at 2:44 p.m.: An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to Chou as a pediatrician.]

“That will allow us to give this vaccine to grandparents who care for infants,” said Chou, president of the California Academy of Family Physicians.

Dr. Dean Blumberg, an associate professor of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis, said three quarters of the infants who catch whopping cough get it from someone in their home.

“That’s why it’s important to make sure their siblings and caregivers are protected,” Blumberg said.

The California Department of Public Health has been tracking whooping cough cases by county, patient age and ethnicity, Chavez said. They have seen more infections in counties such as Marin, where more parents have opted out of vaccinating children, he said. Latino infants are most likely to get whooping cough, more than twice as likely as white infants, while among adults, whites were more likely to get infected than other ethnicities, followed by Latinos, Chavez said.

Chavez said the department has provided free vaccines to local hospitals and community clinics and held a series of meetings with ethnic media in Northern, Southern and Central California to raise awareness about the importance of vaccinations.

Department officials stressed that the vaccine is safe for pregnant women, is made from a dead virus and is preservative-free.

-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske
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