Whooping cough is declared an epidemic in California

After 910 cases of whooping cough that have left five babies dead, California has officially declared the outbreak an epidemic. If that isn’t bad enough, the case load is 400 percent higher this year than last, putting the state on track to break a 50-year record. With an additional 600 pertussis cases currently under investigation, officials believe things are about to get worse. Those most at risk? Unimmunized or incompletely immunized babies, whose lungs are still developing.

“Children should be vaccinated against the disease and parents, family members and caregivers of infants need a booster shot,” California Department of Public Health director Dr. Mark Horton said Wednesday. A full regimen of pertussis vaccines includes shots at 15-18 months, along with a last round between 4-6 years. Additionally, health officials recommend additional booster shots at age 10 to 11.

According to Santa Clara Public Health Officer Marty Fenstersheib, the disease, which is a highly contagious infection of the respiratory system, poses a significant risk to young children, whose parents mistake its symptoms for common colds. How do you know if your kid has whooping cough? First signs include runny nose, sneezing, mild coughing and low-grade fever, which evolve after 1-2 weeks into a dry irritating coughing spells. Spells sometimes, but not always, end with the distinctive “whooping” sound.

Of course, this recent outbreak calls into question whether parents who choose not to vaccinate children could be to blame. According to Kidshealth.org, the advent of the pertussis vaccine reduced the annual whooping-cough deaths in the U.S. from between 5,000 and 10,000 people to just 30 a year. Now, like the measles resurgence in 2008, which targeted children whose parents had refused to have their kids inoculated, whooping cough is back on the rise. Last year, the number of whooping cough cases spiked past 25,000, the highest level it’s been since the 1950s.

The debate around vaccinations has been especially contentious in the U.S in the last few years, as parent groups have rallied around the belief that vaccines can be linked to numerous ailments, including autism (a belief based on a study which has since been entirely retracted by the medical journal which first published it). Despite any hard proof, these groups persist in choosing not to vaccinate their children, a process which, Dr. Paul Offit says poses its own dangers, as detailed in last October’s issue of WIRED.

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