STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Investigators from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are in Washington State this week. They're helping state health officials who want to know what's behind an epidemic of whooping cough. Whooping cough has been on the rise in the U.S. since the '80s. But in the past couple of years, the CDC has noted an alarming increase in children.

In Washington State there are more than 1,100 confirmed cases this year. That is 10 times higher than at the same time last year. From member station KUOW in Seattle, Ruby De Luna reports.

RUBY DE LUNA, BYLINE: Washington State is stepping up efforts to get the word out about pertussis, commonly called whooping cough. Last month, the health department aired this radio ad urging people to get vaccinated.

CHELSEY CHARLES: My name is Chelsey Charles. In 2011, my baby Kaliah, died from pertussis, whooping cough, a completely preventable disease. It devastated our family. Don't wait. Go get your Tdap shot before it's too late for somebody else.

LUNA: The Tdap shot not only protects against pertussis, but also tetanus and diphtheria. But despite the outreach, the number of cases continues to rise.

Last week, Governor Chris Gregoire announced she's dipping into the state's emergency funds to boost those efforts. The message: whooping cough is serious. About one in five infants who get it will get pneumonia, and in some cases it can be fatal.

Infants are too young for the vaccine. By the time people reach their teens and early adulthood, the vaccine has already worn off. So the best prevention is for adults and teens to get a booster shot. Gregoire says there's no excuse not to.

GOVERNOR CHRIS GREGOIRE: I don't come in contact with infants often. I'm sure others out there would say the same thing. I don't care. I made sure I have a current booster because I can come in contact with another adult. I can pass it on. It's up to us as adults to step up to the responsibility because our children, our infants, our babies are at risk.

LUNA: The state is also making available 27,000 doses of the pertussis vaccine for adults who have no health insurance. Whooping cough is a highly contagious respiratory infection. Many adults may not know they're carrying the bacteria.

MARY SELECKY: Our symptoms are very different.

LUNA: Washington health secretary Mary Selecky says infected adults have symptoms similar to a common cold, usually followed by a persistent cough. It's the reason why whooping cough is easily misdiagnosed.

SELECKY: We don't get the same kind of coughing fit that a baby would get. We don't turn blue like a baby does when a baby has a coughing fit.

LUNA: Whooping cough causes babies to cough violently. It forces them to inhale with a loud whoop - hence the name. Some babies have little or no cough. But they still may have difficulty breathing. It can be tricky to diagnose.

The health department is also reaching out to hospitals and health care providers. They want them to ask patients if their immunizations are current. They also want new mothers to get vaccinated. If the current pace of infection continues, Selecky says the state could see as many as 3,000 cases this year.

SELECKY: Bugs rule. There are more bugs than people.

LUNA: And bugs move much quicker than we do.

For NPR News, I'm Ruby De Luna in Seattle.

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