Whooping cough was scary for her family, said Bonnie Mays, mother of a 4-year-old asthmatic.
Her son, Gunner, who was 3 when he contracted the disease in late June, would cough, and then cough, and then cough again. Then he would begin a long, agonizing gasp for air. The cycle would repeat itself until the youngster was spent, drained and shivering from fatigue, said Mays, 29, of Burleson.
At the time, no one knew that Gunner had whooping cough, also called pertussis. Gunner was sick for more than two weeks, Mays said.
"He kept telling us, 'I can't breathe,' and would turn purple and blue while coughing," Mays said. "We ended up at the ER twice and then his regular doctor a few times until the pertussis test came back positive."
Whooping cough was a common killer of infants in the 1940s until vaccines were created. Recently, it has made a comeback. The United States is on schedule to see the highest incidence of whooping cough in 50 years, said Dr. Don Murphey, medical director of pediatric infectious disease at Cook Children's Medical Center.
Through August, the incidence in Tarrant County is low compared with past years, but the Texas rate is extremely elevated, according to epidemiological studies.
Doctors warn that the low case rate is no reason for Tarrant County residents to become complacent. Pertussis is most active between May and November, and whooping cough can still kill infants.
"You look around this year and it's all over the place," Murphey said. "Everyone should talk to their doctor about getting a booster. And people should make sure that everyone around a new baby gets immunized."
The Texas Department of State Health Services urged people to make sure that they are immunized. Texas has had six deaths from whooping cough this year, the health department said. Five of them were children under 2 months old. The sixth was an unvaccinated 3-year-old with serious pre-existing medical conditions.
The six deaths are the most in Texas during a single year since 2005. There were 961 Texas cases of pertussis last year, down from a peak of 3,358 in 2009.
As of Aug. 31, there were 1,153 confirmed and probable cases of pertussis in Texas, double the number reported in the first eight months of 2011, according to the state.
This year, 12 percent of cases have required hospitalization and about 80 percent of those were children under 2 months old.
Pregnant women should be vaccinated during the last half of their pregnancy so they can confer some immunity to the child, doctors said.
Anyone likely to be around an infant should also be vaccinated. Infants 2 months old and younger cannot be vaccinated, so vaccination of those in contact with them is crucial, state health officials said.
Records show that 75 percent of infants with pertussis caught it from a relative, according to the state health department.
Mays said that she or her husband transmitted the disease to Gunner.
Both were sick around the time he contracted it.
The vaccination is not foolproof, and research shows that the immunity may wane more quickly than first thought.
Doctors who treat primarily adults are less likely to consider their patients' immunization schedules.
"Vaccines are not just for children anymore," said C. Mary Healy, a Houston pediatrician. "More and more vaccines are recommended for adults. It's becoming a critical issue."
The public health response to whooping cough is called cocooning.
The practice encourages everyone who will be in contact with the infant to be vaccinated, preferably before the baby is born or discharged from the hospital, Healy said.
"Even if you get infected, you do not get lifelong immunity from the disease," Healy said.
"The immunity wears off within a period of five to 10 years. With the vaccine, immunity may wear off more quickly than that."
Another group, children ages 10 to 14, is also experiencing an increase in pertussis, state health officials said.
"They call pertussis the 100-day cough," said Jason Terk, chairman of the council of science and public health at the Texas Medical Association.
"It's very contagious when you have mild symptoms. Many who have it do not realize that they have it."
Mitch Mitchell, 817-390-7752
Twitter: @mitchmitchel3 ___
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