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Ninth infant confirmed dead from whooping cough in state epidemic

September 14, 2010 |  5:56 pm

A ninth baby in California has died from whooping cough, state officials said Tuesday.

The death of the infant, who lived in San Bernardino County and was less than 2 months old, makes this year’s epidemic more deadly than 2005's. Eight infants were killed by the bacterial infection that year, the most recent severe whooping cough season, said Ken August, a spokesman for the California Department of Public Health.

It's San Bernardino County's second death this year due to whooping cough, also known as pertussis; Los Angeles County has recorded four deaths.

Infants face the greatest risk of dying from whooping cough because they are too young to be fully inoculated. In addition, their initial symptoms are so mild that physicians may not suspect pertussis until it is too late to save the infant's life.  Physicians have urged increased vigilance because of the epidemic, warning that the best way to protect babies is ensuring everyone in contact with them has been vaccinated.

“This sad case reminds us that the best way to prevent pertussis is to get vaccinated,” said Dr. Maxwell Ohikhuare, San Bernardino County’s health officer, in statement released late last week. "Immunity from pertussis vaccine or disease wears off, so most adults are susceptible to pertussis and should get immunized to protect themselves and their families.”

State officials often do not immediately receive death reports from counties.

At least seven of the nine infants killed by whooping cough were too young to be vaccinated.

One of the dead, a 2-month old, had gotten the first of four shots needed to produce full immunity, on schedule with immunization guidelines. The immunization status in the most recent case was not immediately available.

Last month, California Department of Public Health officials sent a letter to healthcare providers statewide saying that “a common theme among the infant deaths is that pertussis was not typically diagnosed until after multiple visits to outpatient clinics, emergency departments or other healthcare facilities.”

“Early diagnosis and treatment is key to preventing further deaths,” wrote Dr. John Talarico, an immunization branch chief with the state. He also urged physicians to check for pertussis in any infant with breathing trouble.

Pertussis is often spread to newborn babies by their parents and older siblings whose whooping cough is undiagnosed.

Because immunity to the disease begins to fade as early as five years after an inoculation, it’s important to get a booster shot, health officials say.

In July, California health officials recommended that everyone 7 years and older, including the elderly, who is not fully immunized get the Tdap inoculation -- especially pregnant women and anyone who will have contact with them and their babies.

Questions on whooping cough? E-mail the reporter at ron.lin@latimes.com

-- Rong-Gong Lin II