Whooping cough epidemic threatens students and faculty

By Craig Couden

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Students won’t be whooping for joy this semester as California and SRJC face an epidemic of Whooping Cough, health officials said.

Between January and August in California, there were 3,076 confirmed or suspected cases of Whooping Cough, or Pertussis, seven times the number of cases during the same time period in 2009. Seven children died. All were infants less than two months of age. If these trends continue, it could be the largest outbreak in 50 years according to the California Department of Public Health.

“It’s more contagious than influenza,” said Cheryl Higgins, a nurse practitioner with SRJC Student Health. “We’re holding our breath because it’s so contagious.”

Student Health received a small number of cases over the summer, but expects the number to rise as the new semester begins. Actions taken last year in response to the H1N1 pandemic mean that SRJC is better prepared to handle communicable diseases like Pertussis, according to Higgins.

According to the Sonoma County Public Health Division, 133 cases were confirmed and 17 suspected in Sonoma County as of Aug. 15.

California is one of 11 states that does not require middle school booster vaccines for Pertussis and along with North Carolina is only one of two states where officials declared Pertussis an epidemic

Pertussis is spread through contact, much like cold and flu viruses. The best way to protect yourself and others is to wash your hands often, stay home if you feel sick, cover your cough with your sleeve and get immunized, according to Higgins.

Early symptoms of Pertussis, which can last 6-10 weeks, mimic cold or flu symptoms like fever and cough, except symptoms get worse instead of going away.

“You just cough and cough and cough,” Higgins said.

The name “whooping cough” comes from the sound children make as they struggle to breathe in after a fit of coughing. The disease destroys cilia, small hair-like projections in the throat, and is often called the “100 days cough” because it supposedly takes 100 days for the cilia to recover. Symptoms are more severe in children, especially under six months because their air passage ways are so small. Every hospitalized case during this outbreak has been an infant under six months old.

Antibiotics are available to fight the disease, but do little once the disease is fully active. Immunization is best, especially for people around young children who are too young to be immunized.

“Infants are depending on the whole community to get vaccinated,” Higgins said.

If enough people are vaccinated, it builds herd immunity: because fewer people are susceptible, there are fewer people to transmit the disease to others. However, the vaccine is not perfect. It has only been available since 2005 and is still being studied. The vaccine makes it less likely, but not impossible to get the disease.

Pertussis vaccines are available through Student Health at cost for around $37 and will be available for free at certain community event dates, such as the Santa Rosa Wednesday Night Market on Sept. 1.

Visit http://www.sonoma-county.org/health/ph/diseasecontrol/pertussis/index.htm for more details and information.

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