ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A whooping cough outbreak responsible for 30 illnesses at La Cueva High School this fall has prompted health officials to encourage students and family members to get a Tdap booster and watch for symptoms.
Pertussis, also called whooping cough, typically is not life-threatening to high school students or adults, said David Selvage, the state’s infectious disease epidemiologist.
But students infected with the highly contagious bacterial illness can sicken household members susceptible to deadly complications, he said. In particular, pertussis can be deadly for infants who have not completed a series of vaccinations.
“The big focus is the infant population and women who are close to delivering,” he said.
APS recently sent a letter to parents of La Cueva students alerting them to symptoms and treatments for whooping cough. The school also is using nasal swabs to quickly diagnose students, said Laura Case, director of nursing for Albuquerque Public Schools.
The outbreak has not resulted in any hospitalizations, said Selvage.
“We are having an ongoing outbreak at La Cueva High School, and are working very well and very closely with the staff there,” he said Tuesday.
If a student is diagnosed with pertussis, health officials also examine the student’s family members and treat everyone in the household with antibiotics, Selvage said.
“Early detection is the key,” Selvage said. Prompt treatment with antibiotics shortens to about five days the time that someone can infect others, he said. Without treatment, a person may remain contagious for up to three weeks, according to the CDC.
La Cueva is the only school in the state affected by a pertussis outbreak, although small clusters of illness have cropped up in other schools, Selvage said.
“Anymore, it just seems to be par for the course,” he said. Selvage had no explanation for why La Cueva experienced the outbreak.
Health officials have asked parents, teachers and other school personnel to remain vigilant for students with symptoms, said Case.
“The main thing we’re trying to do is protect the infants in the community,” she said.
The chief symptom of pertussis is a cough that may be mild at first but typically worsens into an uncontrolled cough that can persist for months. Other symptoms include a runny nose, sneezing and mild fever.
People with pertussis usually spread the disease by coughing or sneezing while in close contact with others, who then breathe in the pertussis bacteria.
Schools are ideal for spreading pertussis because students are in close contact in buses, cafeterias and classrooms, Selvage said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends all pregnant women get the Tdap booster to provide immunity to their newborn infants.
The Tdap booster protects against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis. Infants and young children should receive a primary series of vaccines called DTaP, at 2 months, 4 months, 6 months and 12 to 18 months of age.
In addition to pregnant women, anyone who expects to be around infants should receive the booster shot, including family members, baby sitters and health professionals, the agency recommends.
In New Mexico, pertussis appears to have diminished somewhat from 2012 levels, when the state reported 898 cases for the year, Selvage said. So far this year, the state has had 472 confirmed and probable cases, he said.
The CDC last year reported the largest spike in pertussis case since 1955 – 48,277 cases in the U.S., up from 18,719 in 2011. Most of the nation’s 18 pertussis deaths in 2012 were among infants younger than 3 months.
A possible explanation for the increase in pertussis cases in recent years is the waning immunity of pertussis vaccines, Selvage said. About 30 percent of kids are susceptible to the illness five years after completing their childhood vaccinations, he said.