Babies are dying in Texas — deaths that health officials say can be prevented.

At last count, six children have died of pertussis, or whooping cough, in Texas this year. More than 1,000 cases of the disease have been diagnosed in 2012, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS). The six deaths so far this year are the most for a single year since 2005.

Five of the six who died were babies too young to be vaccinated against whooping cough, meaning someone — family, friends, or even health care workers near the infants — likely unknowingly passed the germ to the child. Often an adult or older child may not know he or she has whooping cough. Their symptoms usually are less severe than in infants and may seem like just a cough.

“Anytime an infant dies from a vaccine-preventable disease, it’s a tragedy,” said Jason Terk, MD, chair of the Texas Medical Association (TMA) Council on Science and Public Health, and member of TMA’s Be Wise — ImmunizeSM physician advisory panel. “People around the baby need to get the shot to protect themselves from the disease, thereby protecting the child who is defenseless against it.”

Babies cannot receive their first pertussis vaccine until they are 2 months old, and they are not fully protected until they receive multiple doses, usually when they reach 15 to 18 months.

Pertussis is commonly called whooping cough because of the distinctive “whoop” sound an infected patient makes when he or she gasps for air between coughs.

Pertussis booster vaccine is recommended for all adolescents and adults, especially those in contact with newborns. The term for vaccinating those who might be near newborns is “cocooning,” as in wrapping the baby in a protective cocoon against disease.

“Pregnant women certainly should get the vaccine during late pregnancy, but really everyone who will be in contact with the infant should be immunized,” said C. Mary Healy, MD, a consultant to TMA’s Committee on Maternal and Perinatal Health, who has advocated cocooning against pertussis for several years. Dr. Healy, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at Texas Children’s Hospital, suggests people get the shot at least two weeks before they will be near the newborn. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and DSHS recommend expectant mothers get the pertussis vaccine any time after 20 weeks’ gestation.

Dr. Healy added that health care and child care workers should get this vaccine as well.

TMA’s Be Wise ¯ Immunize program, a joint initiative led by TMA physicians and the TMA Alliance volunteer organization, has given Texas children and adolescents more than 234,000 shots since the program began in 2004. Funding for Be Wise — Immunize is provided by the TMA Foundation, TMA’s philanthropic arm, thanks to generous support from H-E-B and TMF Health Quality Institute, and gifts from physicians and their families.

TMA is the largest state medical society in the nation, representing nearly 46,000 physician and medical student members. It is located in Austin and has 120 component county medical societies around the state. TMA’s key objective since 1853 is to improve the health of all Texans.