Schools, parents on watch after whooping cough warning

By Ryan Cornell

School and health officials in Warren County are urging parents to be on the defensive after a string of recent whooping cough cases.

Michael Hirsch, director of special services for Warren County Public Schools, said there have been six confirmed cases of whooping cough in the school division, with a majority of students infected at the secondary level.

The division works closely alongside the Lord Fairfax Health Department, he said, and maintenance crews will identify which students were diagnosed with the disease and act accordingly, including sanitizing the buses they ride, the classrooms they sit in and the gym they use.

Hirsch, who said there were no cases of the whooping cough reported in the division last year, added that a letter went home with students informing parents of the signs and symptoms of the disease.

Whooping cough, or pertussis, is a contagious bacterial disease spread through respiratory droplets from coughing and sneezing.

An infection starts out with flu-like symptoms, including coughing, sneezing and runny and stuffy noses, according to Dr. Sherry Whisenant of Front Royal Family Practice.

She said it can be life-threatening for children six months and younger and can lead to persistent coughing in older children and adults lasting up to several weeks.

“[A]nd it’s been on the uprise in the U.S. over the last several years, probably the last eight years, because people aren’t immunizing their children as much as they used to,” she said.

She said it’s important for people to get a Tdap vaccine, which prevent against tetanus, diptheria and pertussis and is required for Warren County Public School students, as well as a vaccine that works stronger against pertussis called Adacel.

She said the Adacel vaccine is especially recommended for expectant mothers between 28 and 36 weeks pregnant, who could potentially spread the disease to their babies.

“Up to 40 percent of infants with pertussis catch it from their mother,” she said.

Lord Fairfax Health District Director Charles Devine said children older than 2 years old should be vaccinated, and recommended Tdap booster vaccines for adolescents older than 11 and adults at least every 10 years.

“It’s not a perfect vaccine,” he said. “It’s a very safe vaccine, but it’s not so effective as we would like it to be, and protection wanes with time, so receiving a booster every 10 years is a good idea, particularly if you’re going to be interacting with an infant too young to be vaccinated.”

The disease can be treated using one of three antibiotics: erythromycin, clarithromycin and azithromycin.

Devine said children and adults should stay home from school or work if they’re infected with the disease, but can return after the fifth day of receiving antibiotics.

“They may still have a cough that persists for a while, depending on how soon treatment starts, but after the fifth day, a person who is infected is no longer able to spread diseases,” he said. “They might have symptoms, but are no longer contagious.”

Although a rising incidence of whooping cough might indicate a mutation in the bacteria adapting to the vaccine, which he said is only a hypothesis, it shouldn’t dissuade anyone from being vaccinated.

“The idea is if you are a person with pertussis, the more people that are vaccinated, the less likely you will have an interaction with someone who can get it,” he said.

For more information, parents are asked to contact their child’s physician or the Warren County Health Department at 540-635-3159.

Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rcornell@nvdaily.com