Whooping cough cases up twofold vs. last year

Whooping cough is on the rise in California, prompting Stanislaus County health officials to keep a close watch for outbreaks of the contagious illness.

From January through March, almost twice as many cases of pertussis were reported statewide compared with the same period a year ago.

Officials are concerned this could be the worst year for pertussis since 2005, when almost 3,200 people were sickened in California, resulting in 574 hospitalizations and seven deaths. The disease tends to peak every two to five years.

In Stanislaus County, seven people have been stricken since January. The disease is characterized by prolonged coughing fits punctuated by a whooping sound as the person tries to inhale.

Dr. John Walker, county public health officer, said the cases this year have been isolated. No deaths have occurred.

The county is on pace to exceed the 17 pertussis cases in 2009. Those stricken have ranged in age from 1 to 46 years old, with an average age of 13, Walker said.

"People need to know that whooping cough is not just a childhood disease," he said. "We are now five years out from the peak (of 110 cases) in 2005. The intention is to nip this in the bud."

Officials urged people of different age groups to get a booster vaccination for pertussis, especially if they have contact with young infants.

The youngest infants are vulnerable because the series of vaccinations for whooping cough start at 2 months. Those babies can be infected by parents and other caregivers.

Most children receive up to five doses of pertussis vaccine before starting kindergarten, but it doesn't give protection for life.

Susceptibility returns

Children are susceptible again by the sixth or seventh grades. Other teenagers and adults can catch the whooping cough if they have not received a booster shot.

The booster vaccine called Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis) became available from drug manufacturers in 2005. It is not related to the pertussis booster that stirred controversy 30 to 40 years ago over claims of severe side effects in rare cases.

Health officials said it's safe for women to have the booster vaccination during pregnancy or after giving birth. Officials are suggesting that fathers be vaccinated before the birth.

The booster is also recommended for family members, health care workers and child care workers who have contact with unvaccinated infants.

The illness starts with a cough and runny nose lasting seven to 14 days. After it takes hold, those infected may have violent coughing for weeks or months.

Treatment with antibiotics may shorten or reduce the severity of the illness. Antibiotics may also prevent symptoms for others who have been exposed to an infected person.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at or 578-2321.