California’s Whooping Cough Epidemic

State health department reports pertussis outbreak and recommends that infants and pregnant women be vaccinated.  

Jyoti Madhusoodanan

CDCWhooping cough, or pertussis, has reached epidemic proportions in California, the state Department of Public Health (CDPH) said in a statement issued last week (June 13). Counties have reported 3,458 cases of the disease this year; more than 800 of these were reported in the last two weeks alone.

Pertussis epidemics are cyclical and peak every three to five years. A 2010 outbreak in the state resulted in more than 9,000 cases, the most recorded in any year since 1947. Health officials said this year’s cases are on track to meet that number, the Los Angeles Times reported. The majority of these cases have occurred in infants and children under 18.

“Prevention of pertussis is particularly important in young infants because they are the ones at risk for severe disease and death,” Gil Chavez, state epidemiologist and deputy director of the California Department of Public Health, told reporters....

Cases of the disease have been on the rise since the 1990s; a June 10 CDPH report  pointed to the increasing use of acellular pertussis vaccines as one contributing factor. These shots cause fewer reactions than the whole-cell vaccines that preceded them, but do not protect as long.

“Unlike some other vaccine-preventable diseases, like measles, neither vaccination nor illness from pertussis offers lifetime immunity,” Ron Chapman, director of the CDPH, said in the statement. “However, vaccination is still the best defense against this potentially fatal disease.” 

Parental refusal has also contributed to an increase in the transmission of diseases such as whooping cough, as Juliette Tinker at Boise State University noted in an April 2012 opinion article: “It is not enough to make safe vaccines that protect people from disease; we must convince the public that they are safe and effective,” she wrote. “This may be a tall order given the current cultural climate, but one that is imperative for immunization programs to be effective.”

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