With 640 cases now confirmed it Washington, state health officials on Tuesday declared the disease is epidemic.
But for family members of 18-year-old Tanner Jeffery of Lake Stevens and 17-year-old Chelsey Charles, of Clearview, the issue is far bigger than news of the rapid spread of the disease. Last year, they learned just how deadly it can be.
Tanner Jeffery and Chelsey Charles' baby daughter, Kaliah Jeffery, died from whooping cough at Seattle Children's Hospital on Aug. 16, just 27 days after she was born.
"The disease just takes over," Chelsey Charles said Tuesday. "It's terrible."
Relatives of the baby's parents vowed to do everything they could to try to prevent another family from suffering a similar tragedy.
Tonya Lively, Tanner Jeffery's aunt who works as a medical assistant at The Everett Clinic, launched a Facebook page, ">Stop Whooping Cough, that tells the story of infant Kaliah and posts updates on the epidemic.
She also urged The Everett Clinic Foundation to pay for 450 doses of the vaccine so that low-income adults could be vaccinated for free in February. It was the first in a series of special clinics that have allowed 868 Snohomish County adults to get the shot.
Various family members, including Chelsey Charles and Amy Anderson of Lake Stevens, Tanner Jeffery's mother, have told their story in the media.
This year, Kat Scott, of Mukilteo, Chelsey Charles' aunt, began begging state health officials to do more than issue frequent updates and warnings on the spread of the epidemic.
"I've been the pushy one," she said, lobbying state health officials to launch a public education campaign on the importance of whooping cough vaccinations.
Last week, Chelsey Charles joined Mary Selecky, the state's secretary of health, in taping those public service announcements. The spots hit the airwaves of several Seattle radio stations on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Scott lobbied the Snohomish Health District to send out 305,000 postcards, one for every household and business in the county, urging teens and adults to get vaccinations.
So far, the health district and the Snohomish County Medical Society have pledged $10,000 of the estimated $25,000 cost of that effort, said Suzanne Pate, a health district spokeswoman.
Yet despite these efforts, whooping cough has spread rapidly, both locally and across the state.
In early January, Dr. Gary Goldbaum, health officer for the Snohomish Health District, said the disease had reached epidemic levels, after 2011 saw a nearly ninefold increase in the number of cases compared with the year before.
By the end of the year, 220 cases had been reported in the county.
That number has nearly been matched in just the first three months of this year, with 200 confirmed cases.
Marysville has been hit hard, with 64 people sickened. But whooping cough has been reported in nearly every city in the county.
Three people have been hospitalized so far this year, including two infants.
Those same trends are being seen throughout Washington, with the disease spread to 25 of the state's 39 counties, including Island, King and Skagit.
If current trends continue, the state will record the highest number of whooping cough cases since 1942, in an era before most vaccines, including one for whooping cough existed, said Selecky, the state health official.
In fact, the current numbers may be far higher than what's reported, she said, since older teens and adults often mistake their sneezing, coughing and runny nose for a cold, so they never seek medical treatment.
Only an estimated 10 percent to 12 percent of cases are diagnosed, she said. They don't know that in addition to being ill, they're spreading a highly contagious disease.
Infants are particularly vulnerable. They can't get their first whooping cough shots until they're about two months old. By age seven, five immunizations are recommended.
The disease can cause a number of problems in infants, including pneumonia, seizures and trouble breathing.
Health officials are recommending that all older teens and adults get the shot, noting that its protection wanes over the years.
"We need everybody's help," said Dr. Maxine Hayes, state health officer. "Get the vaccine. It's our best shot to protect our communities."
Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Whooping cough cases
In Snohomish County, 200 cases of whooping cough have been confirmed this year. Three people, including two infants, have been hospitalized.
Here is a breakdown by city of those cases:
Gold Bar 1
Granite Falls 2
Lake Stevens 22
Mill Creek 1
Mountlake Terrace 1
Source: Snohomish Health District
Free whooping cough vaccine will be offered to low-income and uninsured adults from 4 to 8 p.m. today at Cascade Valley Hospital, 330 S. Stillaguamish, Arlington.
The free shots also will be available to low-income and uninsured adults from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. April 21 at Pacific Medical Center Lynnwood, 19401 40th Ave. W., Suite 230. Walk-ins are welcome, but appointments are recommended by calling 425-339-8694 between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. on April 19.
For more information on either event, go to www.snohd.org.
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