By Nick Veronin
State and local health officials are calling the recent rise in cases of whooping cough an epidemic, and encouraging vaccinations and booster shots.
Reported cases of pertussis, commonly known as "whooping cough," have more than quadrupled in California since last year. And, according to the Santa Clara County Public Health Department, people need to be especially aware of the risks the bacterial disease poses to infants.
"Our advice is to make sure children are up to date on their vaccines," said Joy Alexiou, a county health spokeswoman. "If you care for a child under the age of 1, you should get a vaccine, as well."
According to Alexiou, 33 cases have been reported countywide, including three in Mountain View. That is up from 25 last year. By the end of the year, she said the county is likely to at least double last year's reported incidents. There have been 910 reported cases of whooping cough statewide, up from 219 from this time last year.
"That's an epidemic of a disease," Alexiou said, explaining that the term "epidemic" is used anytime an unusually high number of cases of a disease are reported. She added that surges of whooping cough infections are somewhat cyclical and occur once every several years.
Whooping cough gets its name from the sound associated with the severe cough it causes, as infected individuals may make a whooping sound as they gasp for breath in the midst of severe coughing spells.
People often do not realize they have whooping cough, Alexiou said, as the symptoms are similar to those of a cold — runny nose, sneezing, low-grade fever and coughing. However, she said, pertussis is bacterial, not viral, like a cold, and the cough it causes is much more severe, and can lead to death in infants. Infants cannot begin the vaccination process until they are 2 months old, and do not complete the cycle until subsequent booster shots at ages 4 months and 6 months.
"Adults who aren't living with small children don't need to worry about it as much," Alexiou said.
Healthy adults who contract pertussis are likely to develop a severe cough after cold-like symptoms subside, but will be able to get well without medical intervention, according to Dr. Marty Fenstersheib, a health officer for Santa Clara County. Pertussis can be treated with antibiotics, which will help cut down on an individual's infectiousness, but even with treatment the cough is often persistent, according to Fenstersheib.
However, anyone with a compromised immune system or respiratory problems will be more vulnerable to complications from whooping cough.
Fenstersheib said that whooping cough can be spread through the air and can be picked up by touching surfaces contaminated with the bacteria.
Alexiou said that there is adequate supply of pertussis vaccine to go around and that those interested in receiving the vaccine will be able to get one through county health services and private providers.
She pointed to the "same old" methods for preventing any contagious disease. "Cover your cough, wash your hands, and stay home when you're sick. It's boring but it works."