BREWER, Maine — The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has been providing educational materials and medical guidance to an elementary school in Brewer, where two students recently were diagnosed with whooping cough, a potentially dangerous and highly contagious respiratory illness, according to state health officials.
Far from being eradicated, whooping cough is still around and still a serious threat to health, Dr. Stephen Sears, the Maine CDC’s acting director, said Monday.
“We typically see outbreaks in schools, because that’s where the kids get up in each other’s faces,” Sears said.
Two or more cases of whooping cough diagnosed in the same setting constitute an outbreak.
In the early phase, whooping cough causes coldlike symptoms, including a low-grade fever, a runny nose and a cough. But over time the cough worsens, resulting in prolonged episodes of uncontrolled coughing and pronounced respiratory difficulty. The symptoms may last for six to eight weeks and be very debilitating for both children and adults. The disease is spread by airborne respiratory droplets.
Individuals with whooping cough — formally known as pertussis — are treated with antibiotics. Individuals with whom they have come in contact also may be given antibiotics to prevent the spread of the bacterial illness. Infants under 6 months old are especially likely to become severely ill with pertussis, because they are too young to have started the regimen of vaccines to prevent it.
“They just don’t have the respiratory capacity to fight it off,” Sears said. Also at risk for severe illness are the elderly and people with compromised immune systems because of HIV-AIDS or other chronic conditions.
Public health experts nationwide are trying to control whooping cough, “but we’re not doing a very good job of it,” Sears said. In part that’s because vaccine compliance rates are dropping, he said, and in part because the pertussis vaccine is not 100 percent effective in those who receive it.
Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for pertussis to be identified “almost continuously” in small outbreaks throughout Maine, Sears said.
In addition to the pertussis vaccine series recommended for babies and young children, public health officials recommend a booster shot for teens and adults.