Is California’s whooping cough epidemic a sign of poor vaccination rates?

The California Department of Public Health declared a whooping cough epidemic after recording a quadrupling of cases that has reached 910 so far this year. The agency said local public health agencies are investigating another 600 cases of the illness that starts with a cough and runny nose for one to two weeks.

That puts California on pace for the worse whooping cough epidemic _ with potentially more cases and deaths _ in 50 years.

Five babies, all under three months of age, have died of the vaccine-preventable illness and the state agency urged that all Californians get vaccinated against the disease.

Known as pertussis, it’s highly contagious, and unimmunized or incompletely immunized young infants are at high risk, the agency noted.  It urged families to get vaccinated, noting that women can be vaccinated before and after pregnancy as well as after delivering a baby.

“Whooping cough is now an epidemic in California,” said Mark Horton, director of the California public heath department. “Children should be vaccinated against the disease and parents, family members and caregivers of infants need a booster shot.”

The department also encouraged hospitals that deliver babies to put in place policies to vaccinate new mothers and fathers before sending newborns home.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, New Jersey has had 43 cases of whooping cough so far this year. Pennsylvania has had 140 cases of the illness and Delaware has not reported any cases.

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