TODAY   |  April 05, 2012

Whooping cough reaches epidemic levels

Health officials in Washington state say whooping cough has reached epidemic levels. Hundreds of cases have been reported so far this year, six times more compared to the same period in 2011. NBC’s Mike Taibbi reports.

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>> health officials in washington say that whooping cough has reached epidemic levels. hundreds of cases have been reported this year. six times, in fact, more than last year. nbc's mike taibbi is in seattle's children's hospital with the story. mike, good morning to you.

>> reporter: good morning, matt. here at seattle children's, they've seen 35 positive tests for whooping cough just in the past three months and hundreds statewide. now, if you think of whooping cough as something almost quaint, listen to and watch what follows. it's disturbing video, but it shows that this infectious disease is still with us and still a potential killer. it was whooping cough that landed 2 1/2-week-old natalie in intensive care .

>> can you hear me?

>> reporter: where she spent 72 days struggling to breathe. to rest without pain to survive. she recovered, but her mom, michelle, says it was touch and go all those agonizing weeks, and natalie still needs follow-up care.

>> you never, ever want to see your child go through something like this. it's definitely a parent's worst nightmare.

>> reporter: it was the same nightmare for heidi who passed the disease to her newborn daughter, caroline. before giving birth, heidi thought she just had a cold.

>> i was nursing her. and she started to have one of these coughing episodes. she stopped nursing, and she turned blue and was coughing and choking and gagging.

>> reporter: in fact, four children have died in the current outbreak, and the skyrocketing number of newly reported cases led state officials to declare an epidemic epidemic.

>> so far this year 640 cases have been reported and confirmed as of march 31st . last year we had 94 in the same period of time.

>> reporter: this march of dimes public service announcement can tell you what it sounds like. but in the so-called hot pockets in washington, oregon, and across the country in vermont where the disease is spreading fastest, it's a race to get as many people vaccinated as possible, vaccinated against a foe our dr. nancy snyderman says will sneak up on you.

>> runny nose, fever, but all of a sudden that cough becomes a barking cough and then a real struggle to get air.

>> reporter: for health officials, it's all about vaccination and booster shots , if needed. especially for those who come in contact with toddlers or infants, the most vulnerable victims.

>> i had inadvertently given my newborn a potentially life-threatening illness that was so easily preventable by just getting my booster shot which i was unaware i needed.

>> not only does whooping cough vaccine work, it's safe and it can save your child's life.

>> reporter: again, it's about vaccination. the experts say that when 90% of those in high-impact area get vaccinated, the epidemic begins to recede. matt?