Gov. Chris Gregoire opened up an emergency fund Thursday to help contain a whooping-cough epidemic as officials urged residents to get vaccinated.

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OLYMPIA — Gov. Chris Gregoire opened an emergency fund Thursday to help contain a spreading whooping-cough epidemic, and officials urged residents to get vaccinated against an illness that particularly threatens infants.

Gregoire is making $90,000 in crisis cash available to help strengthen a public-awareness campaign about the need for the pertussis vaccination. The state Department of Health is already looking to spend about $200,000 on the effort.

“Pertussis is very serious, especially for babies,” Secretary of Health Mary Selecky said in a statement. “It’s vital that teens and adults are current on their immunizations because they’re often the ones who give whooping cough to babies.”

The state has also received approval from the federal government to divert some federal cash toward the purchase of 27,000 doses of the whooping-cough vaccine. Those will be available for the uninsured.

Pertussis, or whooping cough, is a highly contagious respiratory illness spread by coughing and sneezing. Infants are particularly vulnerable to whooping cough because they can’t be immunized before 4 to 6 weeks.

So far this year, 20 children under the age of 1 have been hospitalized for whooping cough, according to state data. Last year, two babies in Washington died from the illness.

Babies often get the illness from adults and family members because the shots children get wear off over time. Officials want residents to get a whooping-cough booster, called a Tdap.

Washington has already recorded 1,132 cases of whooping cough this year — about 10 times more than the same time last year, according to disease investigators at the Department of Health. The state is recording more than 400 cases of pertussis each month — four times more than the threshold that state officials consider “epidemic” levels — and Washington is on pace for as many as 3,000 cases in 2012.

Those are numbers that haven’t been seen in decades.

“In my 13 years as secretary this is the first time I’ve had to use the word ‘epidemic’ about disease in our state,” Selecky said.

Health officials say only about 10 percent of cases are typically reported, so the number tabulated by state officials shows only a fraction of the total cases statewide. Skagit County is somewhat of an epicenter this year, with more than 200 cases. That’s a rate about three times higher than in the next nearest county — Jefferson.

The public-awareness campaign will include a radio ad airing statewide, as well as public-service announcements, said health-department spokesman Tim Church. Officials also plan advertisements on Facebook and Google, and they are exploring bus and billboard ads.

On Friday, Selecky and U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., plan to ask the CDC to send investigators and epidemiologists to help the state study and contain the epidemic. Such a study would help state health officials with their response and identify why the epidemic is growing so quickly, according to Cantwell’s office.