Reeds Ferry pupil diagnosed with whooping cough

MERRIMACK – State officials warned Merrimack parents Friday that a student at Reeds Ferry Elementary School has been diagnosed with whooping cough and that the infection could spread around the school.

The state Department of Health’s Division of Public Health Services sent a letter to parents warning that whooping cough, more formally known as pertussis, is “highly contagious” and is passed by direct contact with discharges from coughs or sneezes or by sharing utensils or drinks.

While whooping cough in children, teens and adults is no laughing matter, the real danger is those carriers exposing the bacteria to small children, according to Dr. Jose Montero, the state director of public health.

Infants younger than 1, and especially those younger than 6 months, are most likely to develop “severe illness and complications” and should be kept away from people with a cough, according to the letter.

“It’s incredibly severe and some of them may die,” Montero said. “If we can control it, we are protecting the young kids.”

Whooping cough usually begins with a cold, runny nose and low-grade fever 10-14 days after exposure to the infection, according to the letter. That’s accompanied by a cough that gets worse over a week or two. That’s when the “severe coughing spells” begin, which include a long series of coughs and, sometimes, a loud whooping sound.

The coughing spells are sometimes followed by gagging, vomiting or difficulty catching breath and often get worse at night. That stage can last anywhere from a week to more than a month.

“It makes you quite sick and the cough can last for weeks,” Montero said.

Sports teams are particularly risky groups, he said, because a player with whooping cough comes into particularly close contact with his or her teammates.

If someone has those symptoms for more than a week, he or she should see a doctor to be screened for whooping cough. Children or school staff with whooping cough should stay home until they complete a five-day round of antibiotic treatment, according to the letter. If antibiotics aren’t taken, they should stay home for three weeks.

The Reeds Ferry diagnosis is the second confirmed case of whooping cough in the state this year, Montero said. Last year, there were 46 confirmed cases in the state and in 2007, there were about 70, he said.

“Letters go out quite frequently to the schools,” Montero said.

Health officials now recommend whooping cough vaccines for children and booster shots for teenagers, he said.

If anyone in your household is diagnosed with whooping cough, you should contact your child’s school nurse or the state Bureau of Communicable Disease Control at 1-800-852-3345, ext. 4496, or 271-4496.