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Whooping cough

9/6/2010, 5 p.m.

LOS ANGELES - An analysis of all eight cases of California infants who died from whooping cough this year has found that doctors typically failed to make a swift, accurate diagnosis, despite patients' multiple visits to clinics and hospitals, it was reported.

"In several cases ... the infants were treated only for nasal congestion or mild upper respiratory infection,'' Dr. John Talarico, an immunization official with the California Department of Public Health, wrote in a recent letter to healthcare providers statewide, the Los Angeles Times reported.

"By the time these infants developed severe respiratory distress, it was usually too late for any intervention to prevent their tragic deaths,'' Talarico wrote.

Because whooping cough, also known as pertussis, can be hard to diagnose, health officials urged physicians to suspect the bacterial disease in any infant under 6 months of age who is having trouble breathing, the Times reported.

A quick diagnosis can lead to treatment with antibiotics, which can keep the patient from becoming gravely ill.

With children returning to classrooms this week, whooping cough is showing no sign of letting up in California.

"It's still on the upswing, and I think it's going to be accentuated with schools opening,'' Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director for the Department of Public Health for Los Angeles County, said.

"There is going to be increased opportunity for infection.''

California is in its worst year of whooping cough since 1958, with 3,600 cases reported so far this year -- a seven-fold increase from the same period last year.

Of the eight infants who have died, all were younger than 3 months old.

Four of them died in Los Angeles County.

Fielding said that as school resumes, parents should keep sick children home, and teachers should be alert about the spread of illness in the classroom.

Because immunity to the disease can begin to fade five years after illness or inoculation, officials urged people to make sure their pertussis vaccinations and their children's are up to date.