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Whooping cough rates set to hit record highs

on June 9, 2011

Rates of whooping cough in California have continued to climb this year, and in Contra Costa County, infection rates are lining up to top last year’s record-breaking number of cases, according to the county’s health department.  There have been 83 confirmed cases of whooping cough, also known as pertussis, since January.  Last year, the county saw more than 200 infections.

Whooping cough is caused by bacteria, and can be contracted through contact with someone who is infected already.  When an infected person sneezes or coughs, they can spread the germs, which can be inhaled by those around them.  Pertussis symptoms usually appear within twelve days of infection, and at first manifest as cold-like symptoms including sneezing, runny nose and a mild fever.  A week or two after that, as the bacteria grow in the lungs, they produce a toxin that constricts the airways, producing shortness of breath, a hacking cough and, often, a “whoop” when trying to catch one’s breath.

In older children and adults, whooping cough is commonly referred to as the “hundred-day cough.”  It will go away over time and symptoms can be treated with over the counter cold remedies. The symptoms can be severe, leading to lost sleep and are often mis-diagnosed as bronchitis.

In infants, however, it can be deadly. Ten infants died from whooping cough in California this year, although none in Contra Costa County.  Although most babies are immunized against the disease with a DTAP vaccination that also protects against tetanus and dyptheria, the vaccine is a series of shots that are not finished for a year.

Erika Jenssen, an immunization coordinator with the county health department, said that the number of whooping cough infections in the state is the worst they’ve been in half a century.  “It does peak every two to five years,” she said.  “But this is the highest rate we’ve seen in fifty years.”  While the state’s health department is looking into the matter, she said they have yet to find anything conclusive about why whooping cough has hit so hard over the last year and a half.

Jenssen said whooping cough cases usually spike in July and August, so the county is urging residents to get vaccinated soon. “Pertussis isn’t taking a break for the summer,” she said.

The whooping cough vaccine babies are given—and the follow up booster shot for kindergarteners—generally wear off by age 11 or 12, so Jenssen said parents should make sure to get the booster for their kids when they hit that age.  She said all adults should also get a whooping cough vaccine, because the TDAP booster is fairly new and most adults have never received it. It’s especially important for anyone who has contact with babies under six months old, she said, because whopping cough “spreads throughout the community and infants can be exposed by babysitters, childcare workers, parents, grandparents, siblings, and really anyone who has contact with them.”

In an effort to curb soaring rates of whooping cough, California law now also requires students in the seventh grade and up to show proof of a TDAP booster vaccination in oder to start school next fall.   Jenssen said the county’s health department is urging residents to “avoid long lines in the fall” by getting vaccinated soon.

“This is an issue across the age span,” Jenssen said, “But we know what works best to get people vaccinated is to have a school mandate, a school entrance requirement.”  She said that Canadian school-based immunization mandates for pertussis that dramatically reduced rates of infection there.

For information on where to get a whooping cough vaccination, check the county health services website.  At the time this article was published, a Richmond site was not listed, but Jenssen said a West County site is being selected and will be posted soon.


  1. tsuggs on June 15, 2011 at 11:42 am

    Its is very simple. Because the world has gotten much “smaller” it is very easy to have a resurgance of diseases that the U.S had practically eliminated, come back.

    One can fly around the world in less than a day and bring in viruses and bacteria from countries that do not have the immunlizations that we have here.

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