Widespread vaccination has gone a long way toward curbing whooping cough, a highly contagious infection that can be especially dangerous for babies too young to be immunized.
We've never seen anyone sick with it — or heard the characteristic cough. But maybe that's because we're not in California. The state's health department says the infection has come roaring back this year and is now an epidemic.
By the middle of June, California had reports of 910 cases of whooping cough, or pertussis. At the same point last year, the state had seen only a quarter that number — or 219 cases.
Pertussis waxes and wanes. During the last peak five years ago in California, there were 3,182 cases and eight deaths, the health department said.
Already this year, though, whooping cough has claimed the lives of five infants, all of them less than 3 months old. If the cases keep rolling in as they have been, this could be the worst epidemic of whooping cough in the state in 50 years.
Babies can get their first shot against whooping cough at 2 months. But it takes three shots, usually done by 6 months, before the kids' immune systems are able to mount a strong defense against the bacteria that cause the cough.
The full battery of childhood vaccination against the illness consists of five shots, completed between ages 4 and 6. But the protection against pertussis isn't permanent, disappearing by the time kids reach middle school.
To protect babies, new parents should be get booster shots or full immunization before the birth. Same goes for relatives, kids and any other people who'll be around the new baby.
What are the signs of whooping cough? It starts like a regular cold but after a few weeks severe coughing spells set in. Kids can be sick for weeks or even months.