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An outbreak of pertussis, or whooping cough, in Missoula County has spread across the public schools, with reports of vaccinated and unvaccinated students contracting the disease.

Cindy Farr, health promotion director for the Missoula City-County Health Department, said Tuesday the 104 cases reported in the county since April 17 is the largest outbreak of whooping cough in her 11 years of working in the agency. The second largest, in 2012, ended with only 23 cases. According to Farr, the department anticipates the outbreak to continue until the end of the school year.

“We need the kids to get out of being cooped up in the classrooms and get outside,” she said.

Farr said the health department encourages parents who have children ages 10 to 12 to get them their DTaP booster shot. Children customarily receive DTaP immunization, which vaccinates for diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus, as a series starting from when they're babies and into their preteen years.

Those who have whooping cough should stay home and follow whatever treatment their health care provider prescribes, according to Farr. She also said washing hands and covering coughs will protect those especially vulnerable to the disease, such as pregnant women, babies and those with compromised immune systems.

Maura Jones, a health specialist with the Missoula City-County Health Department, said cases have been reported from high schools, preschools, middle schools and some churches. According Jones, the disease has also been reported in the rural Lolo area.

Jones said the majority of cases fall within the 16- to 20-year-old age range, with the majority of cases concentrated in the county’s high schools.

Hatton Littman, the communications director for Missoula County Public Schools, said Big Sky High School, Hellgate High School, Sentinel High School, Hawthorne School, Seeley Lake High School and C.S. Porter Middle School all had students who contracted whooping cough. According to Littman, Big Sky High School, which has a student population of more than 1,100, reported the most cases.

Littman said nurse screenings in Missoula County public schools began April 19, two days after lab tests confirming three cases prompted the health department to declare an outbreak. After reviewing seating charts, school officials picked students who sat close to those diagnosed with the disease. Nurses then interviewed those students for symptoms and determined whether they needed treatment.

Screenings will continue with every new report until the end of the school year on June 13.

Missoula County Public Schools require students to receive their immunizations per state law. Those who don’t must submit religious exemptions. Missoula County public schools do not have a large number students exempt from vaccinations, and even those who have received a DTaP immunization have been diagnosed with whooping cough, Littman said.

According the federal Centers For Disease Control, whooping cough can infect people of any age, and can be deadly for children less than a year old. Coughing fits caused by the airborne disease can last up to 10 weeks. The DTaP has an 80% to 90% rate of effectiveness in preventing the disease.

Residents of Missoula County can receive vaccinations at Western Montana Health Clinics and the Missoula City-County Health Department.

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