Health & Medicine

Whooping cough rate low in SLO County, but officials urge vigilance

San Luis Obispo County has so far sidestepped the worst of a statewide whooping cough epidemic, but health officials say residents still should be vigilant about keeping themselves and their children healthy.

“While we are pleased that the rates are low, we expect them to rise,” said Ann McDowell, epidemiologist for the county health department. “We absolutely should not be complacent.”

State health officials declared a whooping cough epidemic earlier this month and, on Friday, released new statistics. So far this year, 4,558 people in California have been sickened with whooping cough, also called pertussis, and three infants have died. In San Luis Obispo County, 14 people have had whooping cough so far, according to the California Department of Public Health.

Statewide, 84 percent of cases were in children under 18 years old, including 236 infants younger than 6 months. Half of the babies who became ill were hospitalized, and the three who died — in Sacramento, Riverside and Placer counties — initially became ill in the first few weeks of life. The baby in Sacramento was hospitalized in 2013 at 3 weeks of age and remained in the hospital for a year before succumbing to the illness.

“We are off to a really bad start in 2014 and find ourselves in the midst of an epidemic,” Dr. Gil Chavez, epidemiologist for the state health department, said during a news conference Friday.

The peak months for whooping cough are May through September, he noted, so the full extent of the epidemic isn’t yet known. During the last whooping cough epidemic in California in 2010, there were 9,159 cases statewide, including 10 deaths, all among infants younger than 3 months.

During the 2010 epidemic, San Luis Obispo County faced a major health crisis with the second-highest rate of the disease in California.

McDowell said the summer months present new opportunities for the number of whooping cough cases to rise locally, as people vacation around the state.

“They are more likely to be exposed in those high rate areas and bring it home,” she said. “Obviously, we are very concerned about pertussis especially because it can be fatal to infants.”

Because infants are the most vulnerable to serious or fatal cases of whooping cough, health officials urge all pregnant women to be vaccinated for pertussis in their third trimester. Antibodies from the vaccine can pass through the placental barrier and provide some immunity to the disease until the baby can complete a vaccine series during the first year of life.

“Vaccination of pregnant women is the most important thing that can be done to protect infants,” Chavez emphasized.

Whooping cough epidemics occur every three to five years, primarily because immunity offered by vaccines and the disease itself wanes over time. During the 2010 epidemic, the state Legislature passed a new law requiring students to get a pertussis immunization booster shot before entering seventh grade. Parents already were required to show proof of immunization before children enter kindergarten. In both cases, state law allows parents to opt out.

What is whooping cough

Whooping cough is a highly contagious respiratory illness that often resembles a cold in its early stages but leads to severe and long-lasting coughing attacks. It also can cause lung damage. Its name comes from the “whoop” sound a person makes as they gasp for air during coughing fits. Infants often don’t show clear symptoms of whooping cough in the early stages, so health officials advise parents to seek medical advice as soon as a baby seems sick.

When to get vaccinated

The whooping cough vaccine comes in two formulations, called DTaP and Tdap. Both contain vaccines for tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis. Whether you get the DTaP vaccine or the Tdap booster depends on your age.

Young children: Get five doses of DTaP, one dose at each of these ages: 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 15-18 months, 4-6 years.

Students: 7th graders get a Tdap booster.

Adults: Those in contact with infants, health care workers, and all women in their third trimester of pregnancy are recommended to get a Tdap booster.

Source: California Department of Public Health