California declares whooping cough epidemic after staggering increase in cases

Health officials in California have declared an epidemic of pertussis, commonly known as the whooping cough, following a sharp increase in cases diagnosed this month, Latin Post reported.

The California Department of Public Health said in a statement that 3,458 cases have already been reported this year, signaling the latest in the cycle of outbreaks that typically happens every 3 to 5 years. Two infants have already died during this most recent outbreak, and two-thirds of the patients hospitalized this year have been children 4 months of age or younger.

"Preventing severe disease and death in infants is our highest priority," the agency's director, Ron Chapman, said in the statement. "We urge all pregnant women to get vaccinated. We also urge parents to vaccinate infants as soon as possible."

The Los Angeles Times reported that more than 800 cases of whooping cough have been reported this month alone. Officials are encouraging expectant mothers in their third trimester to get the Tdap vaccine, which covers tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis. Children are eligible to receive the vaccine once they are 6 weeks old.

CNN reported that the California epidemic is part of a 24 percent overall increase in U.S. cases. However, there is not enough data to determine whether this latest outbreak is fueled by willful refusal on the part of groups of parents to vaccinate their children.

A study released in the journal Pediatrics determined that areas hit particularly hard during the last state epidemic in 2010 contained "statistically significant clusters" of parents who refused to have their children get the Tdap vaccine.

The disease, which can begin when the bacteria Bordetella pertussis clings to human air passages, can be spread by sneezing or coughing, and can cause patients to lose the ability to clear mucous from their lungs. The resulting coughs end with a "whooping" sound, though some infants diagnosed with the disease have been found to instead have their faces turn red or purple while fighting the disease.

Watch a report on the latest whooping cough outbreak, as aired by KOVR-TV on Friday, below.