Pertussis, better known as whooping cough, has claimed the life of a Placer County infant less than six months of age, the Placer County Department of Health and Human Services announced today.
“It is a terrible tragedy for both the family and our community when a baby dies,” said Dr. Robert Oldham, the Public Health Officer for Placer County. “Sadly, most of the deaths from pertussis are children less than six months old.”
Dr. Oldham emphasizes that it is important for both children and adults to be up to date on their immunizations. Booster shots for pertussis are critical because, unlike some other vaccine-preventable diseases like measles, neither the pertussis disease nor the vaccine confers lifelong immunity.
Children under six months old are particularly at risk of developing pertussis because vaccinations typically start at two months of age, but do not provide adequate protection until recipients are about six months of age.
To avoid the spread of pertussis, the Placer County Health and Human Services Department recommends that:
- Pregnant women receive a pertussis vaccine booster during the third trimester of each pregnancy, even if they received it before.
- Infants get vaccinated against pertussis as soon as possible. The first dose is routinely recommended at two months of age, but if pertussis is circulating in the community, infants can be vaccinated as young as six weeks of age. Young children need five doses of pertussis vaccine by kindergarten (ages 4-6).
- California 7th grade students receive the pertussis vaccine booster as required.
- Adults receive a pertussis vaccine booster, especially if they are in contact with infants or are healthcare workers who may have contact with infants or pregnant women.
The symptoms of pertussis vary by age. For children, a typical case of pertussis starts with a cough and runny nose for one to two weeks. The cough then worsens and children may have rapid coughing spells that end with a whooping sound. Young infants may not have typical pertussis symptoms and may have no apparent cough. Parents may describe episodes in which the infant’s face turns red or purple. For adults, pertussis may simply be a cough illness that persists for several weeks.
“We can help prevent tragedies like these by vaccinating all pregnant women, ideally when they are between 27 and 36 weeks along in their pregnancies,” says Dr. Oldham.
When pregnant women are vaccinated during this time frame, the immunity developed against pertussis is passed to their infants and helps protect infants until they are old enough to be vaccinated themselves. But if pregnant women are later than 36 weeks along and haven’t received the vaccine, they should still get vaccinated and make sure their babies are vaccinated on schedule after delivery.
“The other way we can prevent infant pertussis is for all of us to stay up-to-date on vaccinations. Everyone in our community who might come in close contact with a newborn baby should be vaccinated. That is just about all of us,” Dr. Oldham said.
After the wide distribution of effective vaccinations during the last half of the 20th century, pertussis became a relatively rare disease in the United States. But recently, pertussis and other vaccine-preventable diseases have been trying to make comebacks. California experienced a pertussis epidemic in 2010 when more than 9,100 cases, including 10 deaths, were reported. That’s more cases than had been reported in any year since the pre-vaccine era. After declining steadily from the peak in 2010, monthly case reports began increasing in mid-2013. Of the cases in 2013, 83 percent of reported pertussis cases were children less than 18 years of age. Of these pediatric cases, 12 percent were infants less than six months of age.
The death was the first confirmed fatality from the disease in Placer County in several years and the second death from the disease in California this year.