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Danger of whooping cough lurks, still reported at local schools

Chuck Biedka
| Saturday, June 3, 2017, 12:51 a.m.

Dr. John Williams knows about whooping cough.

The Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh's chief of the pediatric infectious diseases also knows what it was like to be the parent of a child with the disease.

Highly contagious whopping cough, formally known as pertussis, mainly remains a danger for children too young to get an inoculation and women who are pregnant. Older children and adults can be treated with antibiotics.

Williams' now adult daughter contracted the disease at age 13, about 10 years ago.

“It's far less serious in older children but the cough can last a very, very long time — six months or more,” he said.

Children usually get their first shots at age 2 months. There is a schedule for vaccinations between then and age 4 to 6 and a booster as well as a vaccination at age 11 to 13.

Doctors are now urging women in the last part of their pregnancies to take a booster shot so that their babies will be protected from pertussis for the first 2 months of life, Williams said.

Dr. Michele Paulson, an infectious disease specialist at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh said grandparents and anyone who has direct contact with newborns also should get a booster before coming into contact with the baby.

Adult booster shots are included in a “Tdap” inoculation recommended every 10 years to protect from adults from tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis.

“It's never been eradicated in the U.S.,” Paulson said.

Recent cases

The disease isn't a stranger in the Alle-Kiski Valley or the larger region.

Last month, at least five cases were diagnosed in the Kiski School District. One case was reported this year at Freeport Area School District, administrators confirmed.

Since 2014, whooping cough cases have been diagnosed in at least six school districts in the region, including Holiday Park Elementary in the Plum School District; Fort Allen Elementary School in Hempfield; Hutchinson Elementary School in the Greensburg Salem School District; Gateway Middle School in Monroeville; North Allegheny Intermediate High School; and Taylor Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention epidemiologist Tami Skoff said there are far fewer cases than in the 1940s when 200,000 Americans got the disease and 9,000 died.

The disease still pops up in 3- to 5-year cycles, with about 10,000 to 40,000 cases happening annually across the country.

According to the CDC, about 20 people still die annually from it.

The current vaccination is believed to be safer than an earlier formulation but its protection doesn't last as long, Skoff said.

The disease can involve families.

“It's very dangerous to infants who have not yet received inoculations. It could be life threatening,” said Mary Beth Jones, a nurse practitioner and head of the health department for Highlands School District.

She too has experience with whooping cough in an older child.

“My son got it at 13 at a baseball camp,” she said. “All four of us took antibiotics.”

Chuck Biedka is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-226-4711 or cbiedka@tribweb.com or via Twitter@ Chuck Biedka.

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