Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press
COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — Brighton High students went home after school Tuesday with a letter warning their parents about two cases of pertussis at the school and reminding them about the importance of getting vaccinated.
Pertussis, also known as whooping cough or the 100-day cough, is a highly contagious upper respiratory disease.
The letter explained that symptoms are similar to that of a common cold — runny nose, fever and severe cough, said Jeff Haney, Canyons School District spokesman.
“Anybody with a cough or other cold symptoms, we urge them to contact their physician immediately and to let them know of the possible pertussis exposure,” Haney said.
The letter also explained that individuals who were fully immunized earlier in life are still susceptible to infection because the pertussis vaccine wears off over time, he said.
Brighton High School is one of eight schools in Salt Lake County to receive letters so far this school year from the Salt Lake County Health Department.
“We see pertussis in every school in the valley at some point,” said Nicholas Rupp, Salt Lake County Health Department spokesman. "It’s always concerning, but this year is not unusual."
It’s not uncommon for the health department to send letters notifying parents of pertussis cases in their child’s school throughout the school year. A letter is sent whenever two or more cases are reported in a school, officials said.
For now, the health officials aren't calling anything an outbreak and just want people to be vaccinated. The Tdap vaccine prevents tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis in teens and adults. The DTap vaccine is for children under 10.
“We want people to be aware that there’s pertussis circulating in their community to maybe encourage them to get vaccinated if they are not already,” Rupp said.
County health officials are hoping the letters will help stop the spread of the year-round disease.
“We see cases regularly throughout the year," Rupp said. "Winter, like (with) all illnesses, we see a few more, but it’s always there. Pertussis also tends to cycle and hit a peak every five to six years for whatever reason, and we’re just coming down off one of those.”
In 2012, Salt Lake County reported 656 cases of pertussis, with 24 resulting in hospitalization. As of Oct. 31, the county has reported 469 pertussis cases and 12 hospitalizations.
Rupp says it’s safe to say these numbers are “vastly underreported.”
“Frankly, pertussis isn’t often reported because it presents in teenagers and adults as a cough,” he said. “People think they have a cold that lingers longer than usual. In fact, I would venture to say there’s at least one case of pertussis in every school in the county in the last year or probably two.”
Awareness campaigns from the county health department and from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention appear to be helping. Statewide pertussis cases reported so far this year have declined by 29.3 percent compared with the same time period in 2012, according to the Utah Department of Health.
“If you haven’t had a vaccine in the last five years or so, get vaccinated — especially if you’re going to be around an infant," Rupp said. "In fact, the CDC is recommending that mothers get vaccinated with every pregnancy.”
The infection is particularly concerning for infants because it can result in complications, hospitalization and even death, health officials said. However, children can’t be fully vaccinated until a series of five doses are finished around age 4.
“Vaccinations are as much about protecting those around you as they are about protecting yourself,” Rupp said. “And it’s not just infants. There are people who are immunocompromised, (including) senior citizens (and) people with other health issues. They are all more susceptible to the complications of pertussis, and it’s really our responsibility as a community to get vaccinated to protect them.”
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