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Whooping cough outbreak lingers in western Montana, as school year begins

Whooping cough outbreak lingers in western Montana, as school year begins

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It may be forgotten, but the whooping cough outbreak of last spring is not gone.

Pertussis is a tenacious communicable disease that still lingers in western Montana and has local health officers and school administrators on high alert.

To the point: “While the outbreak has slowed, it has not ended,” said Ellen Leahy, director of the Missoula City-County Health Department. “In fact, new cases over the summer suggest that the disease is present in many age groups and geographical areas of our community.”

Health officials believe the start of school provides whooping cough the environment in which to thrive and spread, as large numbers of children gather again under one roof.

Given the situation, parents are being asked to stay alert for whooping cough symptoms and be proactive should those signs appear in their children or other family members.

“Parents were very helpful when Missoula’s outbreak first started last spring,” said Lesli Brassfield, spokesperson for Missoula County Public Schools. “School and health officials are counting on continued cooperation this fall to keep the pertussis risk low and schools safe.”

Specifically, health and school officials are asking parents to act on the following requests:

  • Be alert for pertussis symptoms, which can start as a cold, but progress to a cough.
  • Be sure family boosters are up to date.
  • Seek medical care if a cough, even a mild one, lasts for more than a week.
  • Keep children home if pertussis is suspected, until a diagnosis and treatments are far enough along for them to be no longer contagious.
  • Encourage children to practice good hand washing, and to cover coughs and sneezes.
  • Take note of messages you may receive from the school or health department. These messages will include general information on protection. If your child has been exposed, you will receive a direct, private notification from the health department.

When school let out last June, Missoula County schools had about 10 confirmed cases cases of whooping cough, Leahy said.

“To date, there have been 22 confirmed cases in the community, with the vast majority of those being resolved, and about one-third that number being cases that dripped in throughout the summer with the latest one as late as last week,” she said.

When school let out last spring in Ravalli County, 48 whooping cough cases were confirmed, and 49 cases in Flathead County.

“Each of those cases represents a huge number of other exposed people,” Leahy said.

Because Missoula’s school district has a greater percentage of students who have been immunized, the number of whooping cough cases has been significantly lower, Brassfield said.

Although vaccination is the best prevention against community outbreaks, no vaccine is 100 percent effective and cases have occurred in vaccinated individuals, said Missoula infectious disease specialist David Christiansen.

Lessons learned from last spring have resulted in a closer working relationship between MCPS and the health department, Leahy said.

“We can help prevent this disease by being prepared,” she said.”If we remain alert, we can stop or reduce an outbreak.

“The good news is that pertussis is a treatable disease with antibiotics, and people who have been identified as having exposure to the disease can be treated with antibiotics and not get the disease.”

Currently, there is not a spike in pertussis, Leahy emphasized, and should one happen, a health department nurse would be sent to the schools to help identify any new cases.

“We took the lull of the summer to work together with the school district to be prepared,” Leahy said. “I hope we are overprepared.”

Said Brassfield: “We definitely want to help parents understand what they need to do and how they can help protect their kids.”

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