California’s Whooping Cough Outbreak Has Officially Been Declared An Epidemic

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The number of whooping cough cases in California has officially reached epidemic levels, state officials reported late last week. Nearly 3,500 state residents have come down with the respiratory illness so far this year, and public health experts are urging parents to make sure their young children are protected.

“Prevention of pertussis is particularly important in young infants because they are the ones at risk for severe disease and death,” Dr. Gil Chavez, the state epidemiologist and the deputy director of the California Department of Public Health, said on Monday.

Whooping cough, which is also known as pertussis, is a highly infectious disease that can be spread by coughing and sneezing. It’s typically not too serious in adults — but it can land small children in the hospital, and in some cases, it can even be fatal. Back in 2010, the last time California had a serious whooping cough outbreak, ten infants died.

This year, more than 800 people have contracted whooping cough within the past two weeks alone. According to health officials, about 84 percent of those cases are concentrated among infants, children, and teens. 119 people have been hospitalized, and one two-month infant has passed away.

It’s too early to tell exactly what is contributing to the uptick in whooping cough cases. Epidemiologists have observed that these outbreaks tend to run in three- to five-year cycles, partly because the pertussis bacteria is evolving and the vaccine against it is diminishing in effectiveness over time. There’s also some evidence that an increasing number of parents are skipping out on their kids’ recommended vaccinations, since California is one of the states that allows people to opt out of vaccines because of “philosophical objections.” That’s created what one infectious disease specialist refers to as a “reservoir of unvaccinated children.”

Thanks to vaccine denialism — which is often fueled by the widely debunked myth that vaccinating kids can increase their risk of developing autism — the United States is experiencing a resurgence of whooping cough across the country. Other vaccine-preventable diseases, like measles and mumps, are also continuing to spread.

Babies who are too young to be vaccinated themselves rely on what’s called herd immunity to keep them healthy, so they’re directly impacted when others choose to forgo their shots. Some parents are using their personal stories to drive this point home. This spring, one Toronto-area mother posted a Facebook photo of her infant in the hospital after the five-week-old came down with whooping cough. “If you are considering not immunizing your children, think first about the people you put at risk who CAN’T get the immunization. If our story makes one parent choose to immunize their children that otherwise wouldn’t have, lives can be saved,” she explained.

Nonetheless, recent research has found that even disease outbreaks, like the one that’s currently happening in California, aren’t necessarily enough to convince vaccine-resistant parents to change their minds.