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No whooping cough deaths in California last year

LOS ANGELES - California did not suffer a single death from whooping cough in 2011, the first year since 1991 that there have been no fatalities in the state from the highly contagious illness, health officials said yesterday.

The news comes after the state experienced a whooping cough epidemic in 2010 when 9,000 were infected. Most vulnerable to the disease are infants too young to be fully immunized. Ten babies died after exposure from adults or older children.

Cases of whooping cough, also known as pertussis, dropped to 3,000 last year and authorities were waiting to see how this year goes before declaring the epidemic over.

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“Everything seems to indicate we’re heading in that direction,’’ said state epidemiologist Dr. Gil Chavez.

Public health officials credited the drop to greater awareness, faster diagnosis, and a new law requiring that middle and high school students get a booster shot before starting school.

At the peak of the epidemic, doctors were urged to spot whooping cough early, send infected babies to the hospital, and promptly treat those diagnosed.

“We worked very hard on that and I think it was successful,’’ said Dr. James Cherry, a pediatrician at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The California Department of Public Health also gave out free vaccines to hospitals and aired public service announcements in English and Spanish.