Schools issue whooping cough warning

One student is a confirmed case, while others await test results, officials say.

A ninth-grade student at Bainbridge High School has a confirmed case of pertussis, the highly contagious disease also known as whooping cough.

Another three Bainbridge students are awaiting test results to find out if they also have the malady, according to a health warning issued by the Kitsap County Health District this week.

“There have been approximately 50 cases in the county since the beginning of the year,” said Heidi McKay, R.N., who works at BHS and Blakely Elementary School. “Last week it hit Bainbridge Island.”

Pertussis hits the school district every year, McKay said.

“It does tend to go in waves. Some years are kind of peaked in the county in June, when school was getting out and those cases rollercoastered,” she said.

On Monday, parents whose children attend the high school and BHS staff members received a letter from Scott Lindquist, director of the Kitsap County Health District, detailing how the disease is transmitted, its symptoms and recommended treatment.

In a note accompanying the bulletin, BHS Principal Brent Peterson encouraged parents and staff members to monitor students and themselves for respiratory systems and, if symptoms are observed, to seek medical evaluation.

Pertussis is a bacterial respiratory infection that is spread through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes on another person.

The amount of time between exposure to pertussis and the beginning of symptoms is anywhere from five to 21 days.

The infection causes symptoms similar to the common cold – runny nose, sneezing, cough and low-grade fever – but within a few days, the cough becomes persistent and comes in bursts, often followed by a “whooping” sound as the child breathes in.

“A cold usually lasts one week. Whooping cough lasts even longer than that,” McKay said. “You hear the whooping more in babies – not teens so much.

“Their air passages are really small. A lot of times it was older kids and adults getting it and passing it to the babies. It isn’t life threatening for adults.”

Long coughing spells that become severe can make it difficult for a child to eat, drink or even breathe. Vomiting may follow a long coughing spell.

Classic pertussis lasts six to 10 weeks, health officials say.

The greatest occurrence and risk of complications from pertussis are found in children less than 1 year of age, and in young infants, a severe case of pertussis can have serious complications, Lindquist wrote.

Unimmunized or inadequately immunized infants and children as well as adults whose immunity has diminished can get pertussis. Infected older children and adults are contagious even though they have mild or atypical symptoms, he said.

Schools where parents choose not to vaccinate their children have a higher percentage of percussis, McKay said. It is recommended that parents keep to the vaccination schedule recommended by physicians.

The health district urged parents to monitor their high school students closely for respiratory symptoms for the next three weeks; those with symptoms should have a pertussis culture taken.”

To test for percussis, a nasal culture is taken by putting a Q-tip through the nose to the back of the throat, said Kerry Dobbelaere, physician’s assistant and clinical services program manager for the Kitsap County Health District. Test results take up to a week.

While awaiting the results of their culture, patients should be considered contagious and kept at home. Once their diagnosis is confirmed, they should continue to be kept isolated until they have taken a prescribed antibiotic for five days.

The actual course of antibiotic treatment will run longer than that.

A recently approved vaccine that protects adolescents and adults against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis now is available. Known as TdaP, this is the first vaccine to protect against all three diseases and is considered as safe as the current tetanus-diphtheria vaccine, according to researchers.

In 2004, the number of pertussis cases in the United States was 18,957, up from 11,647 the previous year, an upswing mirrored in Washington state.

For the first time, more cases of pertussis were reported among teens and adults than infants, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Doctors believe that a worldwide vaccine program may be able to eradicate the disease.

However, Dobbelaere said, getting the vaccine is not going to help you after you’re exposed.

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Health information

For more information about pertussis, call the Kitsap County Health District at (360) 337-5235.

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