California flu deaths hit 202; infant dies from whooping cough

receiving the pertussis vaccine
A student at a Huntington Park high school receives a whooping cough vaccine in 2011. On Friday, health officials reported that a baby in Riverside County became the first person in California confirmed to die from the disease since 2010.
(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Confirmed influenza deaths of Californians under the age of 65 reached 202 this week, state health officials said, with 26 deaths confirmed in Los Angeles County.

Speaking with reporters Friday, California Department of Public Health communicable disease control chief Dr. James Watt also reported the death of an infant in Riverside County from pertussis.

The child’s death marks the first whooping cough fatality since 2010, the last time the disease peaked in the state. That year, more than 9,100 cases of pertussis were reported in California, with 10 deaths.

Whooping cough rates rise and fall according to a three- to five-year cycle. Monthly reports of pertussis cases had been declining since 2010, but began to go up again in mid-2013, Watt said. The state’s preliminary case count for 2013 is 2,372.


In 2012, California reported 1,022 whooping cough illnesses. 

Watt said it was too soon to know how pertussis cases would trend in 2014, but said that the death of the baby in Riverside County “highlights the importance of vaccination." 

Watt urged pregnant women and infants to get immunized “as soon as possible.” Mothers who get vaccinated during their pregnancies confer protection to infants who are too young to get an immunization. Babies can get their first dose of pertussis vaccine at as early as 6 weeks of age, and should have three doses by the time they are 6 months old, Watt said. 

Boosters follow during a child’s second year, before kindergarten and at 11-12 years of age. People who never received a vaccine during the preteen years should also get immunized, Watt added.


While pertussis was on the rise, the new flu numbers may reflect the beginning of a decline in what has thus far been an especially deadly influenza season.  By this point in the year in 2013, only 18 Californians below the age of 65 had died from the flu; during the entire 2012-2013 season, the state confirmed 106 deaths in the age group.

For the week ending Feb. 1, influenza remained at “a level considered widespread” throughout the state, with outpatient visits and hospitalizations exceeding expected levels.

But Watt said that the elevated numbers of deaths -- the public health department will investigate another 41 suspected fatalities in coming days -- are a lagging indicator of flu activity, since patients are usually sick for several weeks before they succumb to the illness. Doctor visits for flu-related illness seem to be on the decline since January, which could indicate that illnesses are waning.

“We are hoping this means it’s on the downslope,” he said, adding that flu vaccine doses and antiviral medications are in good supply.

Twitter: @LATerynbrown

Get our Essential California newsletter