It's the state's first infant death from pertussis since 2018. Officials say vaccination is the best way to prevent it.

By Maria Carter
REDPIXEL.PL/Shutterstock

April 23, 2019

A baby in Orange County, California has died from whooping cough, health officials said last week. This is the first death related to the highly contagious respiratory tract infection in the region since 2007.

“We are deeply saddened by this loss of life and send our condolences to the family,” Dr. Nichole Quick, interim county health officer, said in a statement

Last July, whooping cough also claimed the life of a baby in San Bernardino County, California. It was the state’s first infant death from whooping cough, also known as pertussis, in two years. And 171 cases of pertussis overall were reported to HCA’s Public Health Services division in 2018.

“The best way to prevent pertussis is to be up-to-date on vaccinations,” said Dr. Quick. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends vaccinating infants with DTap (diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis) starting at 2 months of age, and pregnant women between 27 and 36 weeks—so they can pass immunity onto their newborns until they’re old enough for vaccination. "Maternal vaccination during pregnancy has been found to be 90% effective in preventing pertussis disease in children under two months of age,” said Dr. Quick.

Bacteria called Bordetella pertussis causes the infection by attaching to the tiny hairs (cilia) that line the upper respiratory system and releasing toxins which cause airways to swell, according to the CDC. Whooping cough gets its name from the shrill sound patients typically emit during coughing fits. For infants and young children, these coughing spells can be so severe they cause vomiting, seizures, brain damage, and loss of breath. In rare cases, pertussis can be fatal.

About 8,000 people in the U.S. died from whooping cough annually before the vaccine was recommended, according to the CDC. That number is now less than 20. Experts have long recommended a "cocooning" strategy to protect newborns: Parents, siblings, grandparents, and other loved ones and caregivers who will be around the infant in the first few months get the DTap or TDap (booster) vaccine, since these are the people most likely to expose a baby to pertussis. 

Whooping cough spreads when a healthy person inhales the air expelled by an infected person’s cough or sneeze, or through direct contact with infected saliva or mucus. Its earliest symptoms mimic those of the common cold (cough, runny nose). The incubation period usually lasts about a week but can linger for up to 21 days.

Two infants died during California's last whooping cough epidemic in 2014, when the state saw 800 cases over the course of two weeks in June. Prior to that, a 2010 outbreak led to 10 infant deaths in the state, the L.A. Times reported.

"This serves as a grim reminder that whooping cough is always present in our communities, and immunizations are the first line of defense," Karen Smith, M.D., MPH, director of the state Department of Public Health said in a statement last year.

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