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Calif. cuts whooping cough deaths to zero

For the first time in two decades, no one in California died from whooping cough last year, a public health victory that followed the deaths of 10 babies in 2010.

The state also cut the total number of whooping cough cases by two-thirds, from a high of nearly 9,000 in 2010 to less than 3,000 in 2011, officials announced Tuesday.

Dr. Gil Chavez, the California Department of Public Health epidemiologist and deputy director for infectious diseases, credited wider availability of vaccines, faster diagnosis, greater awareness and a new law that required pertussis booster shots for middle- and high-school kids.

“Looking at our data, we really identified that there were some gaps in the rates of vaccination of critical populations,” Chavez said.

The push depended on the cooperation of local health departments and health care providers working together to emphasize the need for vaccination against the infection.

Pertussis is a highly contagious bacterial illness spread by coughs and sneezes.

Efforts were targeted particularly toward families, caregivers and health care providers of babies younger than 6 months. Because they can’t be fully immunized until after that age, it’s important that everyone around the infants be protected against the disease, a process known as “cocooning," health experts say.

The number of whooping cough cases remained high in California, however, at nearly 3,000. The last time there were that many cases was in 2005. The last year in which no one died was 1991, when the state recorded just 249 cases of pertussis.

State officials are awaiting final figures that show how vaccination rates increased because of the efforts, Chavez said. The law requiring immunization of 7th through 12-th graders will apply going forward to all students entering 7th grade this year and in the future.

Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention applauded California's rapid response and vaccination efforts, said Alison Patti, a program manager. Pertussis is cyclical, so a drop in infections was expected as the disease made its way through the population. But efforts to accelerate and expand vaccination certainly helped.