“Several students” in the Blaine County School District have come down with pertussis, a highly contagious respiratory infection commonly known as whooping cough, according to the South Central Public Health District.
At least three students have been diagnosed in the Wood River Valley, according to Health District spokeswoman Brianna Bodily. On Friday morning, the School District confirmed the cases in an email sent to parents, staff and community members.
“I don’t have any more information than that it is in the Blaine County schools,” School District spokeswoman Heather Crocker told the Idaho Mountain Express on Friday morning, adding that it is isolated to students. But, she added, “our community is so small it is important for everyone to know.”
Due to federal law, Bodily said, she couldn’t say where the cases were located or exactly how many students tested positive—only that all cases were in people 18 and under.
Pertussis is characterized by uncontrollable coughing fits and is classified as “highly contagious” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; that means an “outbreak”—a term used in a Friday news release by the district—refers to three or more confirmed cases in a geographic area, according to Bodily.
At first, whooping cough can be tough to distinguish from a common virus, according to Dr. Katie Quayle, a pediatrician at St. Luke’s Clinic in Hailey. Early symptoms include a cold, followed by coughing fits that can grow increasingly violent, sometimes to the point of inducing vomiting. The name whooping cough comes from the high-pitched gasp at the end of a burst, when a person catches his or her breath, but that’s not always evident. Older teenagers and adults may have less severe symptoms, though the infection can be fatal in very young children.
“It’s really a cough that just doesn’t go away,” Quayle said. “The thing we worry about, as pediatricians, is that it can be really bad in little kids under 1.”
That’s because the coughing can cause apnea, a pause in breathing that might lead to serious medical issues.
“It’s important to watch for symptoms so you can get medicine right away and protect the rest of your family from the bacteria,” said South Central Public Health District epidemiologist Tanis Maxwell.
Untreated, the cough may continue for four to six weeks, and be contagious for three. That span shrinks to about five days following treatment, according to the Health District.
The first student was diagnosed on Nov. 1, followed by two more on Nov. 12. At least one student had been vaccinated against the disease, Bodily told the Express.
“Pertussis is very, very contagious,” she said. “Vaccinations are excellent at preventing a disease, but once it’s out there, they’re not 100 percent. That’s why we talk about things like herd immunity—it’s important to keep diseases out, because once they get in, that breaks down.”
Still, vaccination provides “a lot” of protection against infection, Bodily said.
And, according to Quayle, it can shorten the course of the disease, as well as prevent serious complications.
The diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine—often called DTap of Tdap—is one of the first given to children to build immunity to the bacterial diseases. The CDC recommends five doses of the vaccine from ages 2 months to 6 years.
“Whooping cough vaccines cannot give you whooping cough since they do not contain any live bacteria,” the CDC says on its website. “The whooping cough vaccines we use today for children and adults in the United States contain purified, inactivated parts of the bacterium that causes whooping cough.”
Does it work? History says yes: Before whooping cough vaccines became standard treatment for all infants, about 8,000 people in America died of the disease each year, according to the CDC. Today, that number is fewer than 20.
“The best thing you can do is stay up-to-date on your shots,” Quayle said. “Even adults can come in for a booster.”
In Blaine County schools, dTAP immunizations range from 81 percent at Wood River Middle School to 93 percent at Alturas, according to statistics from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. Though vaccination is nominally required to enroll in public schools, parents can receive an exemption for their child through a state form for any reason, religious or otherwise.
This has been a big year for whooping cough across South Central’s eight-county purview, though the disease is highly cyclical, according to Bodily. So far, 30 confirmed cases have been reported districtwide in 2018, 12 of which were in Blaine County. Last year, there were only three, with a single case locally.
Someone can spread pertussis bacteria for up to 21 days after coming into contact with the bacteria, including an asymptomatic incubation period of one to two weeks, the Health District said.
“It’s a very, very long period of time, which is why we’re still putting out this message,” Bodily said. “People can still be passing it along.”
Fortunately, though, the germs die off quickly. School custodians are taking extra precautions to clean common areas and surfaces, Crocker said. To minimize spread, the School District and Health District recommend that people wash their hands thoroughly and often, for at least 20 seconds using proper technique.
“I don’t want parents to panic because a kid passed through a hallway with pertussis days ago—it doesn’t stick around that long,” Bodily said.
If a child or parent develops a persistent cough, the Health District recommends seeing a doctor. But call first for special accommodations; due to the disease’s rapid rate of spread, it’s best to avoid waiting rooms.
The South Central Public Health District’s Bellevue office is available for consultation at 208-788-4335
“The reality is, because it doesn’t come with a fever, some people won’t see a doctor,” Bodily said. “The problem we have is when they come in contact with someone with a weakened immune system, or, heaven forbid, a child.”