Students at Pittsburgh Allderdice diagnosed with whooping cough

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A dozen students at Pittsburgh Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill have been diagnosed with pertussis, commonly called whooping cough, a highly contagious bacterial infection that begins with cold symptoms and a cough that worsens over the course of one to two weeks.

In a letter sent to parents of students last week, the Allegheny County Health Department said most people who are vaccinated against pertussis are protected and that although older children, adults and very young infants may not develop the tell-tale “whoop” that accompanies the infection, the disease “can be very severe.”

“Although deaths are rare, they do occur, especially in infants less than one year of age,” the health department wrote. The department urged parents of children with symptoms to ask their doctors for a pertussis test and protect them from future infections by making sure they are vaccinated and receive scheduled booster shots.

Pertussis causes “uncontrollable, violent coughing which often makes it hard to breathe,” the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. “After fits of many coughs, someone with pertussis often needs to take deep breathes which result in a ‘whooping’ sound.”

Ebony Pugh, a spokeswoman for Pittsburgh Public Schools, said the first case at the school of 1,327 students was reported in April, adding that some students who contracted the disease have been treated with antibiotics and have returned to school.

“We have been working closely with the Health Department since the first confirmed case,” she said. Teachers will be offered free vaccinations.

Karen Hacker, the health department’s director, said students treated with antibiotics can generally return to school after five days. She expected the number of cases to increase.

“I think it’s probably going to grow before its completely run its course,” Dr. Hacker said.

She added that the CDC is currently reassessing its vaccination recommendations for pertussis.

“The recommendations now are that you have a booster of this vaccine at 11 or 12 but it does not seem to have the level of protection that they hoped for,” she said.

Robert Zullo: or 412-263-3909. Twitter: @rczullo. First Published May 14, 2014 10:26 AM

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