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The Informed Parent

Whooping Cough Epidemic

by Shanna R. Cox, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Jan. 20, 2011

The state of California anticipates that 2010 will be recorded as an epidemic year for pertussis. Epidemiologists, charged with documenting the recorded number of infections and complications including death, note the number of infections to be greater that those seen in the last fifty years. This trend has lead to several changes in our recent discussions about pertussis in the office and the hospital.

Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a bacterial infection that is contagious and spread by respiratory droplets. The standard vaccination schedule for children includes a shot to protect against pertussis, given at two, four, six and eighteen months of age. Subsequently, this series is boosted at the time of entrance to kindergarten, and was thought to provide protection for approximately ten years. In light of this year’s infection rates, epidemiologists have suggested several possibilities for the increased degree of infection noted in 2010. This would include earlier waning immunity, resistance of pertussis strain, decreased vaccination rates, and improved ability of detection.

Infants within the first few months of life tend to be those who suffer the most severe consequences of a pertussis infection. Accordingly, the state of California has initiated a program for free pertussis booster immunization for the parents and caregivers of newborns at identified birthing hospitals. This is in an effort to try and prevent exposure to newborns with no pertussis protection. Our local hospitals have subscribed to this program.

Children and adults affected by this illness may be sick for some time, causing missed school and work days. Thereby the result would have a negative impact on the community. The local department of public health and school districts are now issuing mandates that children in grades seven and above have a current pertussis booster immunization. This means, beginning the school year of 2011, all those entering seventh grade will need a pertussis booster. Those children in eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth grades that may not have received their booster dose will be required to be updated immediately. Some students may already be current if they had recent physicals and are in the fourteen-to-fifteen age groups. Pertussis vaccination may be obtained at your pediatrician’s office or a local department of public health.

Parents are encouraged to get a booster themselves, as most adults have not kept up with their vaccinations. They thereby serve as vehicles for transmission of pertussis infection, even if they themselves do not feel terribly ill.

More information is available about whooping cough and these public health changes at the California Department of Public Health’s website,, and also through the Centers for Disease Control’s site,

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