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City health officials are urging the public to get vaccinated for whooping cough, which has become both a statewide and local epidemic in the past month, according to a spokeswoman for the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

In San Francisco, as of Tuesday officials reported 31 probable and confirmed cases of whooping cough, also known as pertussis, said Director of Communicable Disease Control and Prevention, Susan Fernyak.

In comparison, there were 20 suspected cases in all of 2009 and 15 confirmed cases in 2008.

Statewide, the California Department of Public Health reported at least 910 confirmed cases as of June 15, which is a four-fold increase from the same time last year when 219 cases were reported. Five infants in California, all under three months of age, have died from the disease so far this year.

“Because immunity to whooping cough diminishes each year – whether you have the disease itself or have been immunized against it – the waning immunity in the population also makes whooping cough a difficult disease to control,” Fernyak said.

She added that infants are especially prone to the disease, as they have not yet had time to build their immune systems.

The last whooping cough epidemic was in 2005, when one San Francisco newborn died after the mother transmitted the disease to her infant. Fernyak said that a similar case occurred in the city last week, in which a mother transmitted the disease to her newborn, but that the baby survived.

The Department of Health is encouraging pregnant women in their third trimester to get vaccinated to prevent such occurrences in the future. Infants can be vaccinated starting at 6 weeks.

Symptoms of whooping cough, which include cold-like symptoms followed by a persistent cough, may be more acute for children than for adults, Fernyak said. The disease is highly infectious typically for about 21 days, she said, which is why it is particularly important to diagnose early.

Officials encourage anyone with a cough lasting more than two weeks to talk with their physician, who can order a lab test for a firm diagnosis. Since the disease is caused by bacteria, five days of antibiotics can make it noninfectious, Fernyak said.

“What makes whooping cough so challenging is that when adults get it, it tends to be a mild version of the disease. But when newborns get whooping cough, it can be fatal. Right now, adults are the population perpetuating the disease and young children and infants are the ones who are most critically affected by it,” Fernyak said.

The city’s Department of Public Health is offering a special $35 vaccine for adults at the Adult Immunization Clinic, and $10 vaccines for anyone in close proximity to infants.

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