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Latino infants predominate among California whooping cough victims

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Mayo 23, 2022

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The California Department of Public Health suspects that culture may have contributed to the deaths of five Latino babies who fell victim to whooping cough this year. Since 1998 the disease has claimed 46 children, 38 of whom have been Hispanic.

"We believe that some sort of cultural social-demographic factors are an issue," Dr. Gilberto Chávez, deputy director of the department's Center for Infectious Diseases has elaborated in an interview month with Hispanic Link News Service.

So far this year there have been two deaths in Los Angeles, and one each in the counties of Fresno, Stanislaus and San Bernardino – all of which have large Hispanic populations.

Whooping cough is a highly contagious respiratory disease caused by the bacteria bordetella pertussis. Those infected are subject to a violent cough followed by a "whooping" sound when they try to breathe. 

All deaths since 1998 have been children. Though newborns are generally vaccinated against whooping cough, the process of immunizing the infant involves taking three separate shots over a period of six months – during which time the child is still vulnerable. 

"Latinos have a very good vaccination rate, so it's not that they are under-immunized generally," said Chávez. 

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"Hispanics families tend to have more density, with more extended families living together," he said. "Whooping cough is one of the most contagious diseases. It's more likely to spread within the family circle with people living so close together."

The position of California's health department was questioned by Dr. Jane Delgado, president of the National Alliance for Hispanic Health in Washington, D.C. "I don't understand their point. I mean, people gather around infants? Most people gather around infants," she said.    

However, Chávez's hypothesis was supported by Dr. Elena Ríos, president of the National Hispanic Medical Association. "In Hispanic families, often both the mothers and the fathers are working. The babies are being handed off to different baby sitters or family members, dropping them off at their grandmother's house," Ríos said to Hispanic Link. "They're not just in one room where it's more likely to be free of exposure to other diseases, germs, bacteria."

To deal with the vulnerability of infants before they are fully immunized, the health department encourages those who come into any contact with infants to get vaccinated, forming a "cocoon," as Chávez describes it, around the infant.

Before the vaccine was developed, whooping cough infected more than a quarter of a million U.S. residents annually, with the number of deaths approaching 9000. The vaccination was finally introduced in the '40s, cutting rates by more than 99%.

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