Whooping cough claims the life of a Valley baby; illness on the rise

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PHOENIX -- Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, has claimed the life of a baby -- the first in Maricopa County since 2009.

Details are limited about the death, which happened earlier this month. Health officials say the baby likely contracted the illness from an adult who was not vaccinated.

Dr. Bob England, the director of the Maricopa County Department of Public Health, says the instances of pertussis are on the rise in the state. There were 450 cases in 2010, 700 last year, and 220 just this year alone.

"It is drastic. I think we've gotten to a population that doesn't have enough immunity in it to keep the disease from bouncing around and beginning to spread and multiplying," England explained.

Whooping cough is a highly contagious bacterial disease. (An electron microscope image of the bacteria, bordetella pertussis, is pictured above.)

Infection generally lasts about six weeks. Early symptoms are like those of common cold. The violent coughing, which can lead to vomiting, choking and even short  losses in consciousness, usually sets in 10 to 12 days later.

Babies get the first series of shots when they're just 2 months old, and then adolescents and adults can get booster shots.

England said most of the time adults who have whooping cough don't even knowing it.

That's why anyone who is around babies younger than a year old should get vaccinated.

Although it's generally not as serious, kids can suffer from pertussis as well.

All five of Renee Balwinski's children got the disease a few months ago, including her daughter, Alissa Lopez.

"I would cough really bad for like a couple of minutes," Alissa, 10, said. "I would not be able to breath."

It got so bad, that Alissa went to the emergency room three times.

"She couldn't breathe for what seemed like forever, probably close to a minute," Balwinski recalled. "She got to the point a couple of times where her eyes were rolling and she almost passed out."

The family says all the kids are up to date on their shots, but their immunity had likely worn off.

After two months, all five kids are finally on the mend.

For more information about pertussis, check out www.SoundsofPertussis.com.