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Whooping Cough Cases at School Prompt Action by Health Department

Dec. 22, 2007 — Health officials took action Saturday to stem a potential outbreak of whooping cough at St. Croix's Country Day School.
The department distributed "mass prophylaxis" to students to avert the spread of whooping cough — formally known as pertussis — after two confirmed cases were reported a day earlier, according to a news release from the Health Department.
Whooping cough is caused by a germ that lives only in people, and it is spread through the air by coughing, sneezing, laughing or even forceful talking, according to Dr. Richard Olans, an infectious-disease specialist with the Health Department. He distributed the medication Saturday.
In addressing the issue, the Health Department worked jointly with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is available for assistance to health departments nationwide to test students after suspected cases get reported.
"The investigation was rapid, and enabled us to make an effective, evidence-based response to avert a more widespread outbreak of a potentially contagious illness," said Health Commissioner Vivian I. Ebbesen-Fludd on Saturday.
Country Day officials, including Headmaster William Sinfield, were on hand Saturday and praised both the response and the collaborative efforts.
"We had two suspected cases, and so we feel we acted swiftly and rationally to insure that the community was safe," he said. "We couldn't be happier with the service and support we received from the Department of Health. Dr. Olans has been a tremendous help, not only in helping us to manage the process but also in easing the fears of many parents who have concerns."
Sinfield also credited the school's nurse for being alert and for initially contacting the Health Department for assistance because "we were not aware of either protocol or procedures on how to proceed."
"Our school nurse contacted the Health Department and it was at that point that the support came in from Health and the CDC," Sinfield said.
Country Day followed a process that Ebbesen-Fludd hopes will become more of a routine in the community.
"We encourage the process of residents contacting us on matters of public health," she said. "The V.I. Department of Health, by law, has direct responsibility for conducting programs of preventative medicine in order to protect the health of residents, and responding to public health emergencies is an important part of that mandate."
The investigation and response to the whooping-cough cases went smoothly because of the cooperation of both school officials and parents, Ebbesen-Fludd said.
"This was a dry run for us, because in the event of any outbreak of illness affecting the public’s health, the department will have to follow these procedures and distribute mass prophylaxis to avert its spread," she said. "We look forward to working with our stakeholders in the community, because it will take all of us — public, private and parochial entities — working together to keep the community safe."
The department will continue to monitor the situation at Country Day and attempt to identify potential cases elsewhere in the community, Ebbesen-Fludd said.
"We have not yet found any other clusters of coughing on island, but surveillance is ongoing," she said.
More information on the disease, courtesy of the Health Department:
What is pertussis?
Pertussis is commonly known as whooping cough. It is a highly contagious disease that is caused by a germ that lives in people only.
How is pertussis spread?
It is spread through the air by persons who are coughing, sneezing, laughing or even through forceful talking.
What are the symptoms?
Whooping cough begins with cold symptoms and a cough that worsens over one to two weeks. A person develops cough spells with a long series of coughs (coughing fits) without pausing to breathe. The spells may be immediately followed by a "whooping" noise when the person breathes in again. Older children, adults and very young infants may not have the "whoop."
People with whooping cough also vomit after a bout of coughing, and have difficulty catching their breath. The cough is often worse at night, and cough medicines usually do not help alleviate it. There is generally no fever. The disease may be milder in adolescents or adults.
Who can get pertussis?
People get whooping cough from someone who is already ill. People of any age or gender can get whooping cough. Infants can develop severe illness and complications, especially if they are unvaccinated or not up to date with their vaccinations. Even persons who were previously vaccinated can get whooping cough.
Can I get pertussis from touching a person who is not sick but was exposed to another person with whooping cough? For example, my close friend whose boyfriend or girlfriend has whooping cough?
This is not likely, because pertussis is spread through the air by coughing.
What can a person do to be protected against pertussis?
There are vaccines which can protect against the disease. See your doctor.
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