The April outbreak of the whooping cough, AKA Pertussis, disrupted classes and activities throughout Missoula. (Macki Cummings)
The April outbreak of the whooping cough, AKA Pertussis, disrupted classes and activities throughout Missoula.

Macki Cummings

Spring Pertussis Outbreak Rocks Big Sky

June 12, 2019

This story originally appeared in the May 21 issue.

As of May 13, 2019 there are 100 confirmed cases of pertussis. We officially have an outbreak.

So what is pertussis and how can you protect yourself? Pertussis or whooping cough, is a highly contagious bacterial infection of the lungs. Because pertussis is a bacterial infection it can be treated with antibiotics. Symptoms include a low grade fever, a mild cough, runny nose and sneezing. Unfortunately, three out of four of those symptoms resemble spring allergies.

   So how do you know if you have whooping cough?

Well the simple answer is you get tested. Missoula County Health Department Staff have been screening students for weeks. Screening serves to recommend students with close contact and symptoms to get tested and start antibiotics.

In the beginning they were only calling in students that had close contact with a confirmed case of pertussis, but as of now anyone and everyone is getting called in for screening. “Because this is such a community wide outbreak, we recommend anyone with a cough get tested for pertussis”, says Colleen Morris, Manager of Immunization Services at the Missoula County Health Department.

   If this is such a big outbreak who is the most at risk?

Babies and toddlers, they have little to no defense against diseases like this and it can be deadly for them. The other group that is at risk is people with immune deficiency disorders and respiratory issues, like diabetes, asthma and heart issues. Immune deficient students and students with younger siblings at home are highly recommended to do everything they can to protect themselves.

   How can we protect ourselves?

Practice normal hygiene care, wash your hands with soap often, sneeze or cough into the crook of your arm and stay home if you experience symptoms. “The best thing you can do to prevent the spread of pertussis is stay home if you feel sick and if your friends feel sick, advise them to stay home,” Morris states.

Otherwise the biggest thing you can do is get vaccinated. This protects you, first of all, but it also can help protect others around you, who have chosen not to get the Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis) vaccine. When over 94% of a community has the vaccine for a disease it provides that other percent that chose not to get the vaccine with herd immunity. Meaning that other 6% is less likely to get that disease because everyone around them is protected. “The problem is when vaccination drops below 93% in a community,” Morris says grimly, “that’s when we start to see outbreaks.”

   But aren’t people with the vaccine still getting whooping cough?

Yes, that’s because the booster you got when you were 11 or 12 only has five years of good immunity. It doesn’t stop protecting you after five years, it just stops providing as good of protection as it did in those first few years. Even if you were to get sick, it’s going to be less severe than if you didn’t get the vaccine in the first place.

So who all has whooping cough?

As of May 13, 2019 there are 100 confirmed cases in Missoula County alone. Over 200 people have it statewide and three other states have declared pertussis outbreaks. About 8,000 people die in the United States from pertussis and an average of 160,700 die worldwide yearly.

With how many cases have been confirmed in Missoula alone, that could increase this year. If that doesn’t make you take this outbreak more seriously, I don’t know what will. Get tested if you feel sick. Stay home if you are and take your vitamins kids. As of now, this only seems to be getting worse.


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