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WASHINGTON — A high school in Prince William County, Virginia, is reaching out to parents after a student showed up to class with whooping cough (also known as pertussis).
Three days before the school year ends, Patriot High School Principal Michael Bishop told parents in a letter that there is “no need for alarm.”
But pertussis “is a very contagious disease,” said Alison Ansher, health director for the Prince William Health District.
And in some cases, it can be fatal.
It can start with a runny nose, sneezing or mild cough, and eventually turn into coughing spells, in which the sufferer has a barking cough. That cough is sometimes followed by vomiting.
“In between the coughing spells, the person may appear perfectly well,” Ansher said.
The cough that comes with pertussis can last four to six weeks.
Whooping cough is more contagious in its early stages, said Ansher. It is passed along through the air, via sneezes or coughs from an infected person.
While many school-age children have had the DTaP vaccine to prevent against whooping cough, they could still be at risk of catching the bacterial respiratory illness.
“What we’re finding is that the vaccine immunity doesn’t last as long as we thought it had in the past,” Ansher said.
The illness can be dangerous for infants and people with weakened immune systems, and it has proved deadly in Virginia.
“A family didn’t realize a teenaged sibling had pertussis, and an infant was born, [was] exposed and passed away,” Ansher said.
Children between ages 11 and 12 should get a booster vaccine, Ansher said. Vaccines are also recommended for women who are pregnant or anyone who will have close contact with an infant, Ansher said.
“You’re protecting those around you who cannot be immunized or haven’t been immunized,” she said.
If you suspect you or your child have pertussis, you can get a swab test for it at the doctor’s office. In most cases, Ansher said, a five-day treatment of antibiotics will be prescribed.
Ansher also recommends that people who are infected stay out of work or school until the five-day antibiotic treatment is over.
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