The Latino community in California has been hard-hit by a recent epidemic of whooping cough that has killed 10 infants, nine of them Hispanic.
The outbreak of whooping cough, or pertussis, started in May in Fresco, Calif., and has already infected over 6,200 people across the state, making it the largest pertussis epidemic since 1950.
The California Department of Public Health does not break down the whooping cough cases by ethnicity, so there are no figures on the number of Hispanics that have been infected.
But almost all the deaths have been Hispanic infants, and the reason why is still unclear.
“There is no clear reason why Latino infants are impacted disproportionately,” said Norma Arceo, spokeswoman for the California Department of Public Health.
Jeff Dimond, a spokesman for the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, said Hispanics have a couple factors working against them in the whooping cough epidemic. They tend to have large families and live in more enclosed spaces, he said, and some are not getting vaccinated.
Having vaccinations is critical in the fight against the infection, he said, as is keeping those infected away from babies.
“Pertussis is extremely contagious, but it is also preventable,” Dimond said. “The important thing we want to emphasize is if you have a newborn child in the house, you want everyone who is going to be in contact with that child to be vaccinated against pertusses.”
Whooping cough in an adult is commonly mistaken for a bad cough. But if the infection is spread to an infant, the consequences could be deadly because they do not have the immunity to fight it.
“As an adult, we have the force in our lungs to break up that mucus. A child does not,” Dimond said. “They cough so hard they can literally cough the air out of their lungs. They can also cough so hard they break blood vessels under their eyes so it looks like they’ve been hit.”
Dean Blumberg, who specializes in pediatric infectious disease, said that — while Hispanics could be at risk because they are more close-knit and tend to visit family members more often — there is no genetic disposition making Latinos more vulnerable.
But Blumberg is seeing outbreaks in areas where parents choose not to get their children immunized.
“It’s not that they can’t afford it or don’t have access to vaccinations,” said Blumberg, an associate professor of pediatrics at University of California, Davis. “We are seeing geographic clustering in areas with lower immunization rates, where parents choose to opt out because they are reading stuff on the Internet.”
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