Whooping cough, a serious bacterial disease that can cause severe illness and death in infants, is epidemic in California according to state and local health officials. County health officials are saying people should get vaccinations and booster shots.
As of June 25, whooping cough, which is also called pertussis, has been verified in 41 cases in Santa Clara County, according to Joy Alexiou, county health spokeswoman.
At the same time last year, only nine cases were reported and only 25 cases were reported for all of 2009. Statewide, 910 cases of whooping cough have been reported, up from 219 from this time last year, Alexiou said.
Surges of whooping cough infections are somewhat cyclical and occur once every several years, she said. Palo Alto has been fortunate and has had only one case so far. That person is a 16-year-old, she said.
Whooping cough gets its name from the sound associated with the severe cough it causes. Infected individuals may make a whooping sound as they gasp for breath in the midst of severe coughing spells.
To hear what whooping cough sounds like in a child and adult, visit the Santa Clara County website.
People often do not realize they have whooping cough, as the symptoms are similar to those of a common cold: runny nose, sneezing, low-grade fever and coughing. But unlike a cold, pertussis is bacterial, not viral. The cough it causes is much more severe and can lead to death in infants, Alexiou said.
In infants, usually there is no fever and diagnosis can be missed because initially symptoms can be mild. But the cough can be mild and then transform into severe respiratory distress, according to San Mateo County health officials.
There is no lifetime immunity from the disease and nearly half of all infants get whooping cough from their parents, officials said.
Anyone who will come in contact with an infant -- including grandparents, parents, siblings and child-care providers -- should be vaccinated, county officials said.
Pregnant women may be vaccinated during the last three months of pregnancy (third trimester) or after giving birth. Fathers can be vaccinated at any time but it is better at least two weeks before the baby's birth, according to San Mateo County officials.
Children under the age of 1 are particularly vulnerable since the regimen of vaccines that protect against the disease isn't completed.
Infants cannot begin the vaccination process until they are 2 months old but are at risk until they receive two more shots at ages 4 months and 6 months. Two more booster shots are recommended at 15 to 18 months of age and at age 5 to maintain protection.
Adolescents and adults comprise 27 percent of reported cases -- infants comprise the majority of reported cases. Persons who have previously contracted the disease lose immunity in about 15 years, while immunity from vaccinations wanes 5 to 10 years after receiving the vaccination series.
Most cases in adults remain undiagnosed and are often mistaken for asthma or bronchitis. Adults might report sweating or a sensation of choking. Adults and adolescents with a cough lasting more than two weeks should be considered for whooping cough, according to the San Mateo advisory.
Healthy adults who contract the illness are likely to develop a severe cough after cold-like symptoms subside, but will be able to get well without medical intervention, according to Dr. Marty Fenstersheib, a health officer for Santa Clara County.
Anyone with a compromised immune system or respiratory problems will be more vulnerable to complications from whooping cough. The illness can be spread through the air and picked up by touching surfaces contaminated with the bacteria, Fenstersheib said.
Whooping cough can be treated with antibiotics, which will help cut down on an individual's infection, but even with treatment the cough is often persistent, he said.
Alexiou said there is adequate supply of pertussis vaccine to go around and that those interested in receiving the vaccine will be able to get one through county health services and private providers.
Santa Clara County health officials are working with the medical community at hospitals and clinics to vaccinate pregnant women and infants who are most vulnerable, she said.
People who cannot afford the vaccinations can receive one from Santa Clara County. A list of health providers and further information is available online at the county website.
Health officials in San Mateo County released a press release on Thursday (July 1) regarding a comprehensive outreach program to protect residents.
Information about the vaccine will be provided to health care providers, departments serving families of newborns and young children, school nurses, administrators and teachers, new parents at birthing and infant-care classes and to parents picking up birth certificates at the Vital Statistics office.
The San Mateo County Health System will partner with local schools to encourage middle-school students to get booster shots between ages 10 and 12. Child-care workers are encouraged to get a booster shot every 10 years.
San Mateo County residents can find more information and a list of health care providers giving vaccines at www.smhealth.org/pertussis.
Alexiou pointed to the "same old" methods for preventing any contagious disease to help prevent pertussis.
"Cover your cough, wash your hands, and stay home when you're sick. It's boring but it works," she said.