11 cases of whooping cough reported at local high school; Officials urge vaccinating

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PITTSBURGH - Pittsburgh Public Schools officials and the Allegheny County Health Department have confirmed 11 cases of whooping cough at a city high school.

District spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said the first case was confirmed last month and parents were sent a letter after three more cases were discovered at Taylor Allderdice High School. Several more cases have since been confirmed.

The disease, also known as pertussis, is generally not helped by cough syrups or other common cough remedies. The best safeguard is a vaccine.

“Remember that pertussis is called whooping cough because the sound of the cough is like a whooping crane,” said Dr. Karen Hacker, of the Allegheny County Health Department.

Health department and school officials said in the letter that the illness can be very severe, though it is rarely fatal -- mostly for infants.

“It’s contagious similar to the flu, coughing, it’s basically through mucus and the cough,” Hacker said.

Hacker said even though some students were probably vaccinated when they were younger, it’s still possible to catch.

“Most of these folks at Allderdice have probably had their vaccine when they were in middle school. Now they’re not as immune as they would have been. I understand the CDC is understanding the guidelines to figure out how frequent these things should be given,” Hacker said.

Before a student who has been infected can return to school, they must complete the first five days of medication, officials said.

The following letter was sent home to parents:

Dear Parent/Guardian:

It has come to our attention that your child may have been exposed to a person who has pertussis (whooping cough).

While most people who are vaccinated are protected, pertussis is a highly contagious disease that is spread through the air when an infected person sneezes or coughs and can cause "breakthrough" disease.  Pertussis begins with cold symptoms and a cough which becomes much worse over 1-2 weeks. Symptoms usually include a long series of coughs ("coughing fits") followed by a whooping noise. However, older children, adults and very young infants may not develop the whoop. People with pertussis may have a series of coughs followed by vomiting, turning blue, or difficulty catching their breath. The cough is often worse at night and cough medicines usually do not help alleviate the cough. The disease can be very severe and, although deaths are rare, they do occur especially in infants less than one year of age.

The Allegheny County Health Department strongly recommends the following:  If your child has signs and symptoms of pertussis (listed above), promptly contact your child's doctor. Explain to the doctor your child may have been exposed to a case of pertussis and needs to be evaluated. Your child's doctor may obtain a nasopharyngeal sample to test for pertussis. In addition, if the doctor suspects pertussis, an antibiotic will be given to your child to help him or her get better faster and to lower the chance of spreading the disease to others. Your child will be able to return to school after completing the first 5 days of the medication. It is very important that upon returning to school your child continues taking his or her medication until completed.

If your child is diagnosed with pertussis, all household members and other close contacts should also be treated with antibiotics regardless of their age or vaccination status.

Making sure that children receive all their shots on time is the best way to control pertussis in the future. Diphtheria Tetanus acellular Pertussis (DTaP) vaccine is given to children under age 7 years of age. Children should receive one dose of DTaP vaccine at 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, and between 15-18 months of age. In addition, one dose is needed before starting school. If you are not sure your child is properly immunized, promptly contact his or her doctor.

The combination Tetanus diphtheria acellular pertussis (Tdap) vaccine is recommended for children ages 7 through 10 (if not fully vaccinated) and adolescents and adults as a one-time dose. It is also recommended during EACH pregnancy to protect the newborn infant.

Anyone eligible for Tdap may receive it regardless of interval since the most recent tetanus containing vaccine.

If you have any questions, please contact the school nurse or the Allegheny County Health Department at 412-687-ACHD.