It started with a slight fever. Then the little girl began to cough. It didn’t alarm her parents until early one morning they were awakened by sounds they had never heard from their daughter; hard, dry, high-pitched coughs with little shrieks or whoops.
“It was really odd,” said her father of the sound of his daughter’s cough. “I had a little sinking feeling. It was obvious what it was.”
She had contracted whooping cough, but a mild case without complications. Others have not been so lucky.
Whooping cough sent two children to the hospital in San Luis Obispo County and have sickened many others said, Christine Gaiger, County Health department Communicable Disease Manager. Five children have died from the disease in California this year.
There have been 139 confirmed cases of whooping cough in the county this year. “This is the highest number we’ve ever seen in the county,” Gaiger said. “It’s never been this bad.” And she anticipates more.
Gaiger said symptoms initially mimic those of a common cold, followed by a cough that lingers for weeks that turns severe with the characteristic whooping note and is sometimes accompanied by vomiting. Whooping cough can dangerously restrict breathing. It’s very contagious.
The outbreak in California began around Fresno and Merced in early June and spread to much of the the state, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The state department of health has declared the outbreak an epidemic and advises parents to have their children vaccinated. The department is predicts this whooping cough epidemic could be the worst in California in nearly 50 years. There are 910 confirmed cases in throughout the state and thousands more are believed to be sick with the ailment, which is formally known as pertussis.
Though it has never killed in such numbers as influenza or tuberculosis, whooping cough along with those diseases and polio was one of the most widespread afflictions until the middle of the last century. A vaccine developed in the 1940s nearly wiped out the disease. Since the 1980s, however, whooping cough has gradually become a scourge again.
“Pertussis has been called the 100-day cough,” said Mike Sicilia, a spokesman for the California Department of Health. “Adults can have it, and not even realize that they have it.” Scientists believe the disease can spread unnoticed in the adult population and then strike the young, who are especially vulnerable.
It sweeps through in cycles of two to five years, Sicilia said. When parents become aware of epidemics and the dangers of the disease, they have their children vaccinated and the disease rates drop. Then, as the population forgets about the perils of whooping cough, vaccinations the disease returns with ferocity. Since the 1980s, parent resistance to having their children vaccinated may have contributed to the epidemic return of whopping cough, Sicilia said.
A 2009 study published in Pediatrics magazine found children not inoculated against whopping cough do indeed have a much greater chance of getting the sickness than those who have had shots. Though that conclusion may seem obvious, scientists had hoped enough of the population had been vaccinated that children who were not did not face substantially higher risk. Referred to as “herd immunity,” a population that is greatly immunized against a disease can protect the most vulnerable from getting it: At least that’s the theory.
Vaccination for whooping cough begins when a child is two months old, but a series of five shots must be completed by sixteen months of age for adequate protection, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The shots usually diminish in protection, wearing off by the time a child reaches the end of junior high school.
California is one of 11 states that do not require a booster shot in middle school, which some scientists believe may be one of the reasons why the state is a prime breeding ground for the disease. The best defense against the disease is for everyone who comes in contact with children to be immunized, a technique called “cocooning” according to Jeff Dimond, a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control.
The effects of whooping cough on an infant can be devastating, Dimond said. As the lungs fill with mucus, the baby tries to cough it out- the fast influx of air is what causes the whooping sound. Adults can expel mucus but infants aren’t developed enough to do so and can slowly suffocate.“It’s usually fatal only in infants though adults can carry it,” said Dimond. “It’s a good idea to get vaccinated.”
Staff Writer Robert A. McDonald can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org