Whooping cough claimed the life of a baby in San Bernardino County, California, public health officials announced Tuesday. It is the state’s first infant death from whooping cough in two years, and could indicate an impending outbreak of the highly contagious disease, also known as pertussis.
"Any infant death due to pertussis is preventable through maternal vaccination," James Watt, M.D., MPH, chief of the California Public Department of Health's division of communicable disease control, told CNN.
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. The baby who died in California was under 6 months of age, according to officials.
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.
Nearly 20 people a year, mostly babies, die from whooping cough in the U.S., according to the L.A. Times. 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 reports.
“This baby’s death is a tragedy for the family and for California as a community, as this is a preventable disease,” said Karen Smith, M.D., MPH, director of the state Department of Public Health, in a statement. “This serves as a grim reminder that whooping cough is always present in our communities, and immunizations are the first line of defense.”
Public health officials did not say when the baby died or offer any additional details.