Whooping cough diagnosed

Students who had contact with the ill children are taking antibiotics.
Thursday, May 13, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:55 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Two Columbia students have been diagnosed with whooping cough, a contagious respiratory disease, the Boone County Health Department announced Wednesday.

Heather Baer, a spokeswoman for the Health Department, said the cases do not constitute a public health emergency.

Crystal Church, principal at Grant Elementary School, confirmed that one of the sick students is a fifth grader there. Craig Martin, assistant principal at Smithton Middle School, said the other attends Smithton.

Church and Martin said that at the urging of the Health Department, all students took home letters Tuesday explaining the situation and the disease’s symptoms.

“We sent letters to those who may have been exposed in the classroom, on a sports team or on the bus — even if they don’t have symptoms,” Baer said.

Church said those who have had direct contact with the two sick students received a more detailed letter explaining antibiotic treatments for whooping cough. The district and Health Department are requiring those students identified as having close contact with the affected students to start their 14-day antibiotic treatment before returning to school, Baer said.

Church said many parents of the close-contact students were contacted by phone early so antibiotics could be obtained.

“The parents, nurses, secretaries and teachers should be commended for how well they have handled this,” Church said. “We’ve had an incredible response.”

Mike Currier, who has a fourth-grader and a kindergartner at Grant, said he has 100 percent confidence in the ability of the school’s staff to handle the situation.

“I know how dedicated they are,” Currier said.

Rockie Alden said she is not overly concerned about the risk of whooping cough for her third-grade son, who attends Grant Elementary.

“It makes you think twice, because we’ve never had anything like that come home before,” Alden said of the letter. “But I saw how much work they (Grant Elementary and the Health Department) put into their plan.”

On Wednesday, Church said that only three of the 48 high-risk students and staff had not completed the paperwork proving they had started the antibiotics.

Martin said there were more absentees than normal on Wednesday at Smithton. “This situation is out of the ordinary,” he said.

Hy-Vee pharmacist Meghan Boltz said that in the past two days she had seen an increase in the demand for antibiotics used to treat whooping cough. She estimated the store had filled 50 prescriptions for antibiotics as of Wednesday afternoon.

Whooping cough, formally known as pertussis, is caused by a bacterial infection and initially causes cold-like symptoms. It is especially dangerous for infants, who are at a higher risk for complications caused by breathing problems and secondary diseases, according to a press release from the Health Department.

Columbia School District policy includes whooping cough in a list of diseases that, by law, require immunization before a student can enroll or attend any school.

Only those with religious or medical exemptions can enroll without the vaccine, said Darlene Huff, coordinator of Health Services in the district. She said those not immunized were among those contacted for being at high risk.

Baer said almost all students are immunized but the vaccine wears off as people age. So vaccinated adults are susceptible to the disease as well. The disease is typically milder in adults, who are often the source of infection for children, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Despite the organization and teamwork between the schools and the Health Department, whooping cough has caused more interruption than just a trip to the pharmacy.

For fifth-graders at Grant, it meant no field trip this week to Hannibal.

“I decided it would be in the best interest to postpone it,” Church said.

Missourian reporter C.J. Campeau contributed to this report.

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