SEATTLE — Washington state's worst outbreak of whooping cough in decades has prompted health officials to declare an epidemic, seek help from federal specialists and urge residents to get vaccinated amid worry that cases of the highly contagious disease could spike much higher.
It is the first state to declare a whooping cough, or pertussis, epidemic since 2010, when California had more than 9,000 cases, including 10 deaths. So far, Washington has 10 times the number of cases reported in 2011, as has Wisconsin with nearly 2,000 cases, though it has not declared an epidemic.
California responded to its crisis two years ago with a public information campaign, readily available vaccines and a new law requiring a booster shot for middle- and high-school students. Doctors were urged to spot whooping cough early, send infected babies to the hospital and promptly treat those diagnosed. In 2011, the number of cases there dropped significantly.
In Washington, about 1,280 cases have been reported this year, and officials believe the state could see as many as 3,000 cases by year's end. Health Secretary Mary Selecky declared the epidemic April 3, and since then officials have bought up the vaccine and made it available for free for people who don't have insurance.
State officials have asked hospitals to vaccinate every adult who goes home with a new baby and urged businesses to encourage their employees to get the adult booster shot. Washington already requires a booster shot for middle- and high-school students.
Last week, Gov. Chris Gregoire announced that the state is putting $90,000 into a public awareness campaign and diverting some federal money to pay for 27,000 doses of vaccine. The state also has asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to send a special team of investigators and an epidemiologist to the Washington.
State epidemic declarations are up to the states, and there are no federal regulations for such decisions. Ms. Selecky said this is the first time in her 13 years in the post she has declared a state epidemic, but she thought she needed to take action to stop the disease from spreading further.
"When we've looked historically, we've seen nothing like this," she said. "We're taking this very seriously."
Pertussis is known as whooping cough because of the "whooping" sound people often make while gasping for air after a coughing fit. A highly contagious bacterial disease, it starts off like a cold but leads to severe coughing that can last for weeks. In rare cases, it can be fatal.
Until routine child vaccination became widespread in the 1940s, pertussis caused thousands of fatalities each year in the U.S. While deaths are uncommon today, they still occur: In recent weeks, infants in New Mexico and Idaho have died from the disease.
Adults and teens need booster shots so they don't give pertussis to the babies in their lives, CDC spokeswoman Alison Patti said.
"We want to create a cocoon of protection around them," she said. "We're really worried about keeping babies safe."
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