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California health officials: Whooping cough outbreak 'epidemic proportions'

California’s top health official is warning that a disease that is especially dangerous to babies is now at “epidemic proportions” in the state -- and federal officials say it’s on the rise across the country as well.

Whooping cough often leaves people struggling for breath, with infants and children being among the most vulnerable.
Whooping cough often leaves people struggling for breath, with infants and children being among the most vulnerable.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

California Department of Public Health director Ron Chapman says a whooping cough outbreak spreading across the state has sickened more than 800 people in the past two weeks alone.

In a statement released Friday, Chapman urged Californians to take steps to prevent the spread of the highly contagious disease, especially among young children.

“Preventing severe disease and death in infants is our highest priority,” Chapman said in his statement. “We urge all pregnant women to get vaccinated. We also urge parents to vaccinate infants as soon as possible.”

The CDPH says through June 10 of this year 3,458 people have become sick with whooping cough in California -- that’s more than all of last year.

The disease is cyclical, with it coming in peaks every few years. Since the last outbreak to hit California was in 2010, health officials fear another peak is making its way across the state.

Nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the disease is also on the rise in states across the country.

From the first of the year, through April 14 -- the most recent national numbers available -- the CDC says on its website there were 4,838 whooping cough cases reported. That’s a 24 percent increase over the same period last year.

Officials say infants are especially vulnerable to suffering from the most severe impacts of whooping cough. Two-thirds of the hospitalizations from the disease have been in children four months or younger. So far in California this year, two infants have died from the disease.

Whooping cough, which is formally known as pertussis, gets its name from the what can be uncontrollable, violent coughing spells, making it it hard to breathe.

After fits of many coughs, individuals suffering from the illness often struggle to take deep breathes, which can result in a “whooping”sound.

Federal and state health officials agree that the most effective way to avoid becoming sick with whooping cough is to get vaccinated.

CDPH director Chapman cautions that it is particularly important that people around newborns be vaccinated.

“Unlike some other vaccine-preventable diseases, like measles, neither vaccination nor illness from pertussis offers lifetime immunity,” Chapman said.

“However, vaccination is still the best defense against this potentially fatal disease.”

Chapman says infants should be vaccinated as soon as possible, with the first dose of pertussis vaccine being given two infants as young as six weeks.