Health department responds to pertussis outbreak at Salt Lake County school

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SALT LAKE CITY -- A pertussis outbreak at a Salt Lake City high school has several students home from class.

Officials with the county health department said it isn't uncommon to have a number of whopping cough cases in a school, but because the disease is so contagious they take every outbreak very seriously.

The pertussis vaccine is mandatory for children before they enter grade school and then again when they reach adolescence.

“It’s an upper respiratory illness, so it’s spread through the air through droplets if somebody coughs or sneezes and they are in close contact with somebody else, that’s how it’s spread,” said Ilene Risk of the Salt Lake County Health Department. “So you just need to not have that closeness with someone who has pertussis.”

Monday, after a few cases of the disease had been reported on the East High School campus, Salt Lake County Health Department stepped in and started working with the district to help contain the highly contagious cough.

“As the health department looked at this and how do we minimize the spread and do everything else, they gave us a couple of suggestions, which we are following," said Jason Olsen with Salt Lake County School District.

One suggestion was that any students not immunized need to be excluded from school. Thirty-four students total, sick or not, were given some options.

“They can come back immediately if they went home and got the vaccination, or if they went home and took antibiotics for five days," Olsen said.

But not agreeing to take antibiotics or get vaccinated will result in the student being excluded from school for 21 days. East High senior Justin Freeze said his friend is one of the seven students at East with a confirmed case.

“She was a little sick, and she stayed home and got diagnosed with whooping cough, so she can’t come back until it’s cleared up," Freeze said.

Pertussis is also known as "whooping cough" because of the "whooping" sound that is made when gasping for air after a fit of coughing.

The health department is asking parents to keep an eye out for a lingering cough and to seek health care and have your child tested if one becomes present. It’s important to note a person at any age can catch pertussis and the vaccine is recommended about as often as a tetanus shot.

“For adults, they can miss a lot of work and jeopardize children they might be around," Risk said.