The number of cases of pertussis — also known as whooping cough — is on track to match a 50-year high, and that has prompted an advisory by health officials calling for vaccinations to help combat the potentially deadly disease.

The Gulf Coast region has seen an increase in the disease that affects the respiratory system, but the numbers are less than in North Texas, said Dr. O.W. Brown, a pediatrician and interim chief medical officer at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.

The Texas Department of State Health Services said Tuesday nearly 2,000 people have become sickened this year by the disease. The annual total will likely surpass the recent high of 3,358 cases in 2009.

Two infants, who were too young to be vaccinated, have died in Texas from pertussis-related illnesses.

“If cases continue to be diagnosed at the current rate, we will see the most Texas cases since the 1950s,” said Dr. Lisa Cornelius, an infectious disease medical officer at with state health services.

“Pertussis is highly infections and can cause serious complications, especially in babies, so people should take it seriously.”

Pertussis is a bacterial infection that often starts with cold-like symptoms and a mild cough. After a week or two, severe coughing could begin and last for several weeks, according to a statement from state health services.

Vomiting or a whooping sound could follow coughing fits, which is why the disease is called whooping cough.

Pertussis spreads easily through the air, and people are most contagious while they have cold-like symptoms and during the first two weeks after coughing starts.

The medical branch vaccinates all children against pertussis as part of a standard set of vaccines, Brown said.

Pertussis can also affect adults, but if you’re older, you’re less likely to have complications from the disease, Brown said.

“We’ve not had nearly the number of cases they’ve had in Fort Worth or Dallas,” Brown said. “Part of that is there is a very large group of non-vaccinators in Tarrant County.”

It’s unclear what causes the disease. Treatment consists of eliminating people from the carrier state, Brown said.

The cough can sometimes take weeks to go away, and the younger the patient, the more severe the outcome. A persistent cough of longer than two, three or four weeks is really concerning for younger children, Brown said.

Taking the pertussis vaccine is no guarantee of complete immunity against the disease, but it’s 90 percent effective, Brown said.

Those diagnosed with pertussis should not return to work or school until they’ve completed five days of antibiotic treatment. The state’s health services department has urged parents to check their children’s shot records to be sure they’re completely vaccinated against pertussis and to keep infants, especially those less than 6 months old, away from people with a cough.

At a glance

Pertussis (whooping cough) cases annually in Galveston County

2013 — 8 as of Tuesday

2012 — 10

2011 — 4

2010 — 1

2009 — 7

2008 — 11

SOURCE: Galveston County Health District

Contact Reporter Chris Paschenko at 409-683-5241 or

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