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Whooping Cough Claims 3rd Life in L.A. County, Disease Now Considered an Epidemic in California

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With around 1,500 cases this year -- that's five times more than last year -- California health officials have declared the rise of whooping cough, officially known as pertussis, an epidemic. "We are facing what could be the worst year for pertussis in California in about 50 years,” Gil Chavez, the state’s epidemiologist, told KBPS.

Today, public health officials in L.A. County announced the third death blamed on whooping cough. The death is the sixth statewide.

The state has now expanded its vaccination recommendations to anyone seven years and older who is not fully immunized, including those who are more than 64 years old, and women of childbearing age, before, during, or immediately after pregnancy. Children under seven usually receive vaccinations.

“This expanded set of recommendations is an appropriate response to the epidemic in Los Angeles County and statewide,” said Jonathan E. Fielding, L.A. County's top public health official. Pertussis is spread by the coughing of an infected individual. Typical symptoms in young children include intense coughing accompanied by a whooping sound, and post-cough vomiting. In some cases, however, infants may not show typical symptoms, but can still suffer the same consequences: pneumonia and seizures.

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Former Scienceblogs writer PalMD (he's now on his own) hints that this should not be happening. "I shouldn't see any cases of pertussis ("whooping cough"), but I do," he wrote. "We have a safe, effective and affordable vaccine. But still, people are getting this disease. In the age group I see (adults), immunity has often waned, and if they haven't been revaccinated, they can get the disease and pass it on."

There have been 289 possible cases have been reported in L.A. County, of which 184 are laboratory confirmed, probable, or suspected. For all of 2009, the corresponding number of cases was 156. All three deaths this year were infants. In an average year, there are zero to one deaths attributed to pertussis.