SEATTLE -- A newborn baby who died of whooping cough last week in King County was the first pertussis death in Washington since August 2011 and occurred even though the number of new cases in the epidemic is a tenth of last spring's rate.
The Seattle-King County Health Department withheld details about Thursday's death for the family's privacy, but said it's a reminder that mothers and family members should be immunized to protect babies from pertussis.
There have been 4,658 cases of the disease in Washington this year through Saturday, said state Health Department spokesman Tim Church. That's the highest number since 1941. There were 5 new cases reported in Spokane County this week, bring the total to 238 cases locally in 2012.
With so cases it's almost surprising there hasn't been a death until now.
"It's tragic to have a death," Church said Tuesday. "But with this number of cases it's not unexpected.”
There were a total of two pertussis deaths in Washington in 2011 and two in 2010.
Health Secretary Mary Selecky declared this year's outbreak an epidemic April 3 and the number of cases peaked in May at more than 250 a week. Since then the number of new cases declined to about 25 a week in December -- still at an epidemic level and about twice what would be considered normal in previous years.
"We're glad to see it's dropping, but it's more than we want to see," Church said.
Whooping cough mostly affects children, and 57 percent of the 2012 cases have been in school-age children, ages 5 to 18, who typically have a chronic cough with the "whooping" sound.
The disease is most severe in infants. Some infants are unable to cough. They may turn bluish and have trouble feeding. Nearly 400 cases have been in children under the age of 1. Of those more than 70 were hospitalized, the Seattle-King County Health Department reported.
Nationally, there have been more than 35,000 pertussis cases through mid-November and 16 deaths, mostly infants, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It takes a four-shot series of vaccine shots to immunize a baby in the first 18 months. That's when babies risk catching the disease from adults and why adults are encouraged to have booster shots.
Women should revaccinate with every pregnancy because some protection is passed from mother to child, the Seattle-King County department said.
"Assuring that all family members and other close contact are up-to-day with the pertussis vaccine provides additional security or a `cocoon' around vulnerable babies," the department said.
The disease is relatively mild in adults. Anyone with a cough should avoid infants.