Whooping cough at critical levels in California

October 27, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
The whooping cough epidemic is reaching critical levels in California and claiming the lives of the tiniest victims: babies in their first three months of life.

At the California Department of Public Health, the numbers have been crunched: Nearly 300 new whooping cough cases were reported this week alone, bringing the total number of cases to a level not seen in six decades.

The Brysons are worried for their 2-week-old daughter. California is in the middle of a whooping cough epidemic that is hitting babies the hardest.

"They can't get vaccinated at this age," said Kylie Bryson. "It's up to the parents and the family members that are watching them to get vaccinated. So, yeah, it's scary. They can get really sick. Babies die from whooping cough."

The latest numbers from the Calif. Dept. of Public Health show 10 babies have died this year from whooping cough, also known as pertussis. No more than three die in a typical year.

The state also has had the most cases of whooping cough since 1950, with 6,200 cases recorded since January.

"We realize today that immunity from vaccine and from the disease wanes over time and that leaves adolescents and adults very vulnerable to the disease. And often they're the ones who pass it on to vulnerable infants," said Eileen Yamada, M.D., California Dept. of Public Health.

Nine of the 10 babies who died are from Latino families, though the state can't say why.

Dr. Dean Blumberg is a pediatric infectious diseases expert at UC Davis Children's Hospital. He's noticed the spikes in areas where many parents get waivers, believing vaccines are dangerous.

"What we've been seeing with whooping cough, or pertussis, is that it's really been clustering in those areas of the state, in those counties that have the highest rates of personal-belief exemptions," said Blumberg.

While Los Angeles County has the highest number of cases, whooping cough occurs more often in San Luis Obispo, Marin and Madera counties, when you consider the per-capita rate.

With numbers like that, doctors wouldn't take any chance with the Brysons.

"They made sure before we left the hospital that both of us were vaccinated," said Kylie Bryson.

Governor Schwarzenegger signed a bill last month requiring all 7th through 12th graders get a whooping-cough booster shot starting next school year. But personal belief exemptions would still be allowed.

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