PHOENIX, AZ - Health officials are warning Valley residents after seeing a dramatic increase in a potentially deadly illness.
Nationwide, the number of whooping cough cases is way up and that has the Arizona Department of Health Services on high alert.
Back in February, all five of Renee Balwinski's kids came down with whooping cough at their home in Gilbert.
It wasn't until June that the last child fully recovered.
"For months, they didn't sleep, they didn't go to school very much, they were just miserable," said Balwinski.
Balwinski's children represent five of the nearly 18,000 cases of whooping cough reported across the country this year.
This time last year, the United States hadn't reached even half that total.
"It was horrible," admits Balwinski. "They were up coughing all night. My 10-year-old got it the worst. She couldn't breathe. She kept gasping for air."
"Even though it affects all ages, whooping cough hits infants especially hard.
In fact, one baby in Arizona and nine nationwide have already died from whooping cough in 2012.
Dr. Karen Lewis with the Arizona Department of Health Services tells ABC15 anyone who spends time around infants should get immunized against whooping cough.
Without the vaccine, Dr. Lewis says the illness becomes highly contagious.
"Teenagers and adults get this chronic cough and they don't realize it's whooping cough and they pass it on to babies who die from it," said Dr. Lewis.
Having survived an outbreak at her house, Balwinski also recommends the vaccine so that others won't have to go through what her family did.
"I want people to be aware so they can protect their children," said Balwinski. "I've heard about so many babies losing their lives from it. It breaks my heart."
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