Whooping cough cases hit Johnson County


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Despite Johnson County’s 18 reported cases of pertussis — or “whooping cough” — in the last two weeks, Iowa City School District officials say there is no cause for alarm.

“I wouldn’t call it an outbreak,” said Susie Poulton, director of health services for the School District. “It isn’t that bad.”

Poulton said since the school year began, eight out of the district’s 12,000 students have been identified with the bacterial disease.

According to a press release from the Johnson County Department of Public Health, the disease has mostly affected school-age children.

Highly contagious, pertussis affects a person’s upper respiratory system, causing them to cough violently and making it more difficult to breathe. The intense coughing spells that characterize pertussis can lead to pneumonia, convulsions, and, in some cases, death.

“We have not had more absences than normal,” Poulton said, adding the school district typically sees anywhere from four to 15 cases each year.

Officials say it is normal for a few cases of pertussis to crop up each year, because the bacterial disease never fully dies down.

“It typically occurs in waves every three to four years,” said Patricia Quinlisk, the medical director from the Iowa Department of Public Health.

Iowa is one of 10 states that does not require pertussis vaccination in secondary schools, but officials aim to make vaccinations a mandate in 2013.

“It will take eight to nine months to look at the rule-making process and educate school districts regarding the changes in the law, specifically targeting the changes in school nurse’s workloads,” Don Callaghan, the bureau of chief immunizations with the Iowa Department of Public Health, told the DI in February.

Like area schools, the disease hasn’t greatly affected the University of Iowa campus.

“We’ve heightened our awareness, but we haven’t seen any cases [this fall],” said Lisa James, the associate director for clinic operations in the UI Student Health Service.

Yet this doesn’t mean the UI is immune from the disease.

“With the way students move around — they’re student teaching and working in hospitals — it wouldn’t surprise me,” James said, referring to the likeliness the disease could affect UI students.

All health officials agreed vaccination was the best way to fight the disease.

“For several years now, we’ve been promoting the vaccine,” James said.

As infants, children receive a series of vaccinations, but because the vaccine weakens over time, Quinlisk said she recommends a booster shot for 11-12 year olds.

When adults get a tetanus booster, the shot may contain pertussis for a revamped protection.

Adults and school-age children with more mature immune systems don’t run quite the risk that infants do.

“The serious part is when the children get it,” Quinlisk said. “They have significant trouble breathing and there’s a narrowing of the airways — that’s the scariest.”

UI and School District officials said they are prepared in case of a turn for the worse.

“We’re always prepared for it.  We’re ready if it does happen,” James said.

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