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Whooping cough cases continue to rise in California

August 3, 2010 |  6:05 am

Whoopingcoughchart The number of reported whooping cough cases climbed to 2,174 last week, six times the total at this time last year in an epidemic expected to be the worst in 50 years, public health officials said.

Dr. Mark Horton, director of the California Department of Public Health, urged residents to get vaccinated against the highly contagious upper respiratory disease, also known as pertussis. (Read more: "Facts about whooping cough.")

“The pertussis epidemic is a sobering and tragic reminder that diseases long thought controlled can return with a vengeance,” Horton said in a statement Monday. “We can protect ourselves and the most vulnerable in our community by getting vaccinated today.”

Last week, officials announced that a San Diego County baby had died of whooping cough. It was the seventh pertussis death statewide. All those killed by the infection have been infants, including three babies in Los Angeles County.

In all of last year, three infants in the state died of the infection, one each in Los Angeles, Kern and San Bernardino counties.

A typical pertussis infection starts with a cough and runny nose that lasts a week or two, followed by weeks or even months of rapid coughing often accompanied by the telltale “whooping” sound, authorities said. The diagnosis is often delayed in young infants, who are less likely to cough and may just appear to be suffering from a cold.

California public-health officials recently expanded recommendations for vaccination against pertussis to include children age 7 and older; adults 64 and older; women before, during and immediately after pregnancy; and anyone who may have contact with pregnant women or infants.

They stressed that the vaccine, which is made from dead pertussis bacteria, is safe for pregnant women.

Prior to widespread vaccinations in the U.S., which began in the 1940s, pertussis regularly sickened tens of thousands or more each year and was a significant killer of infants.

-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske