The name may sound funny, but whooping cough can be a very deadly disease. We are currently facing a serious whooping cough outbreak – especially in the California area – where we are seeing unprecedented amounts of people getting sick and many of them are even dying.

Whooping cough, also called pertussis, is a highly contagious bacterial infection that causes severe coughing spells and respiratory inflammation of the upper airways. It is spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes, sending bacteria airborne. Whooping cough can be tough to diagnose because early symptoms are mild and resemble a cold. In some people, this infection can lead to pneumonia and in severe cases, even death.

The ironic thing is, that since the mid-1970s, we’ve had vaccines available to prevent this infection and until recently it was thought to be totally eradicated in this country. So why is it that we’re seeing so many cases now?

One reason is that not all vaccines are permanent. The immunity that you get from a vaccine tends to fade away over time -- and in the case of whooping cough -- that can be around 10 years, so many teens and young adults may not have the protection they need. However, this is a message that has not clearly been communicated to the population, so more and more health agencies have been alerting citizens to get re-immunized to cut down on the rate of transmission.

One group of people that have been heavily affected by this outbreak is Latinos – and the reason is two-fold.

First, immunization protocols in Latin American countries are very lax and many young adults and children that come to the United States do not have the proper immunization schedule, therefore, they have very little protection against infections like whooping cough.

Second, in many cities around the country, Latino families occupy very crowded living spaces – sometimes having 6, 7, or 8 people in a 2-bedroom apartment -- and this kind of living arrangement fosters the rapid spread of illness. Since whooping cough is a highly contagious disease, it makes sense that it is spreading like wildfire in states like California.

One important lesson we need to take away from this current outbreak is that proper immunization of children is absolutely necessary and newly arriving Latinos in this country must check with their pediatrician to learn what vaccines their children need to have.

We must encourage parents to be proactive about getting their children immunized and learn to spot the symptoms of a respiratory illness. Parents must understand that if they have a small child with symptoms of severe coughing, they cannot take it lightly, and should seek immediate medical attention. Some of the recent reports of small children dying from whooping cough have been related to them not receiving the proper medical attention by licensed doctors until it was too late.

The bottom line is, with the proper antibiotics and respiratory care, people suffering from whooping cough can minimize the most severe side effects. It still amazes me that in 2010, we are seeing deadly consequences to diseases that we fully understand and have been successful at controlling, but this is the unfortunate reality.

It seems these days, people have a better understanding of their cell phones than they do of their own health, so stop texting and start learning about yourself.

Dr. Manny Alvarez is a Cuban-American OB-GYN who serves as a senior medical contributor for the Fox News Channel and senior managing health editor of FOXNews.com. To read more from Dr. Manny, click here