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Whooping cough cases continue to rise in L.A. County

November 12, 2010 |  5:34 pm

The number of whooping cough cases reported in Los Angeles County has continued to increase in recent weeks, county public health officials said Friday.

There were 429 cases of whooping cough, or pertussis, reported in October, more than any month this year and more than a quarter of the total of 1,600 cases reported this year, according to the county Department of Public Health.

"This is an epidemic that is reaching numbers we’ve never seen before in Los Angeles County," said Dr. Jonathan E. Fielding, the county’s director of public health.

"This disease can be prevented with a vaccine, and I urge everyone who is eligible to take advantage of this protection for themselves and their loved ones. If you have not already done so, make it a priority this weekend to get vaccinated," Fielding said.

Of the 1,600 whooping cases reported this year, many have turned out to be false positives -- only 480 have been classified as "probable" or "confirmed" so far. But even without those false positives, this year’s numbers are still significantly higher than in past years.

Last year, there were 156 "probable" or "confirmed" cases of whooping cough countywide. In 2008, there were only 80 such cases.

The death toll also has been higher this year: four Los Angeles County infants died of whooping cough, while in past years the county has seen only a single death or none.

Pertussis is often spread by coughing. Typical symptoms in young children include intense coughing accompanied by a whooping sound, and post-cough vomiting. Some infected infants do not show typical symptoms, but can still suffer life-threatening complications such as pneumonia and seizures.

Whooping cough is "especially dangerous for infants under 6 months of age who are not old enough to have received the number of vaccine doses needed to be fully protected," Fielding said.

"Now is an especially important time to get vaccinated," he said. "Vaccinations do not give you instant immunity, and take time to develop full protection. By taking action now, you can ensure that you are protected for the holiday gatherings."

Children should receive three primary vaccinations containing the pertussis vaccine and two boosters by age 4 to 6, followed by a booster vaccine during their preteen years, which protects against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis.

The California Department of Public Health recently expanded its vaccination recommendations amid rising numbers of pertussis cases statewide, and now recommends the booster vaccine for anyone age 7 to 9 who did not complete the pertussis vaccination series and all others age 11 and older, especially women of childbearing age and seniors.

"Infants are most likely to be infected by parents, grandparents, older siblings, daycare workers and other caregivers who have whooping cough but often don’t know that this disease is the reason for their symptoms," Fielding said.

"People suffering from a cough illness who have contact with infants should seek medical care immediately. Anyone who lives with or has frequent contact with an infant should ensure that their vaccinations are up to date."

Those without a healthcare provider or insurance can contact 211 or the county health department for referrals to providers and sites offering free or discounted whooping cough vaccines.

-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske