Whooping Cough Not a Disease of the Past; It's Here and Deadly

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Health officials say adults who have regular contact with children should get booster shots. Credit: Thomas Lohnes, AFP / Getty Images

Whooping cough sounds one of those diseases people used to get -- like dropsy, consumption, scarlet fever or le grippe.

It's the kind of ailment patent medicine salesmen sold Dr. Feelgood's Miracle Elixir to treat. Children just don't die from whooping cough in the 21st century.

The Los Angeles Times reports that just goes to show how far medical science has progressed and, in some tragic cases, how complacent we have become.

Mariah Bianchi thought she might have whooping cough shortly after her son, Dylan, was born in 2005, according to the Times. A pediatrician who checked the baby urged her to see her own doctor.

Her doctor reportedly dismissed her deep-chested cough that was followed by a whooping sound as she gasped for air. Couldn't be whooping cough, he reportedly said. That's a disease of the past.

Bianchi tells the Times the doctor told her to keep breast-feeding Dylan and wash her hands. It was probably just a cold.

Dylan died two weeks later. The Times reports an autopsy revealed he died from a massive infection of the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. In other words, whooping cough.

Bianchi, a critical care nurse, also infected her 3-year-old son Cole. He became seriously ill but survived. She doesn't know where she got the disease. She tells the Times, however, she was vaccinated against it as a child.

"It happened so fast," she says.

The disease spread terror in early generations because of how easily and frequently it killed infants. Four newborns, all less than 3 months old, have died in California this year from whooping cough, according to the Times.

That alarms health officials, who point out there were only three whooping coughing deaths in the state for the whole of last year.

They warn parents whooping cough is not a thing of the past. It is here, deadly and frequently misdiagnosed -- especially in its early stages.

Bianchi was already coughing and whooping in the late stages of her pregnancy. Even though she encountered a battery of doctors and medical professionals, the Times reports, only one of them suspected whooping cough.

Dr. James D. Cherry, a UCLA pediatrics professor and pertussis expert, tells the Times whooping cough is cagey. Symptoms in infants are usually mild.

They may have a runny nose or an undetectable or mild cough, but they generally don't run a fever, he tells the newspaper.

When they do start coughing as the disease progresses, he adds, they cough so much they fail to get enough oxygen. Pneumonia can develop. The bacterium releases a toxin that can raise white blood cell levels so high that they begin to clog blood vessels, hampering the body's ability to bring oxygen into the blood.

Cherry tells the Times most infants get the disease from family members, but the disease is frequently missed in adults. Many doctors just don't believe adults get whooping cough.

"I'll give a talk somewhere and people will say, 'Oh, adults don't get pertussis,' " Cherry tells the newspaper.

And many adults believe they're immune, having been vaccinated against the disease as children. However, Cherry tells the Times, immunity to whooping cough can begin fading five years after an inoculation, and people need to get booster shots.

According to the Times, public health officials want everyone with regular contact with a baby to get boosters as part of a strategy called "cocooning." Although this strategy was made possible with the approval in 2005 of a whooping cough booster vaccine for adults and adolescents, it was not widespread when Bianchi was pregnant.

"I wish a million times we could do things differently," she tells the Times. "But there's nothing I can do except tell my story. This is a serious disease. This is not just a regular cough that you get with a cold. This is really dangerous for babies. Let's protect our babies. Let's vaccinate ourselves."

Related: Researchers Blast Another Link Between Autism and Vaccines

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