Arizona and the Valley are in the grip of a whooping cough outbreak, as the number of sick continue to rise and health officials warn the 500 reported cases are just a fraction of what’s out there.

A new booster vaccine for adolescents may keep the disease from spreading to infants in their own households, and an adult version due in August could prevent future outbreaks. But it’s too late for either to contain current cases, said state epidemiologist David Engelthaler.

“It’s not going to do a lot to stem the tide of the outbreak,” Engelthaler said, “because it’s much larger than that.”

Adolescents and adults are passing whooping cough on to babies and small children, who are most at risk of severe complications, and even death, from the highly contagious disease. Those immunized as children are still susceptible because the vaccine’s effectiveness eventually wears off.

The 244 cases of pertussis — also known as whooping cough — reported so far this year in Maricopa County are just shy of the 258 cases reported for all of 2004. About 80 percent of the cases are among older children and adults, with babies making up most of the rest. In a normal year, infants make up just 5 percent to 10 percent of the cases.

“If the percentage of cases is high in infants, that just means we’re missing a lot of adolescents and adults,” Engelthaler said. “We know we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg, and it’s much larger than in past years.”

The state used emergency funding this month to buy 10,000 doses of the adolescent booster vaccine, distributing it to local health departments to immunize teens living with infants or those who care for them.

There has been one whooping cough death this year, an infant from the West Valley.

Whooping cough can seem like a common cold or cough, so it often goes unreported. By the time an infected person develops the characteristic “whoop” as they gasp for air between coughs, they may already have been contagious for weeks.

The disease is easily treated with antibiotics. Children should stay home during the first five days of treatment, and take all the antibiotics prescribed.

Dr. Charles Finch said he’s seeing more people with whooping cough coming into the emergency rooms of Scottsdale Healthcare’s two hospitals.

“We are seeing an increase, and it’s mainly because of unimmunized patients,” he said. “The problem with whooping cough is that it can present just like any other cold.”

Summer vacation may help slow the spread of the disease, with fewer kids congregating in close quarters.

“My prediction is, as the summer wears on we’ll start seeing progressively fewer cases,” said Dr. Doug Campos-Outcalt, the county’s interim chief health officer. “It’s still a pretty serious situation.”

Engelthaler said it may also be that fewer cases are being reported because kids aren’t coming to see their school nurses, who are required to report pertussis to county health departments.

Health officials urged parents to make sure children are immunized.

“It you do have a cough, stay away from babies,” Engelthaler said. “If you have a newborn in the house, keep them away from individuals who are coughing.”

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