by Ellen Thompson
The Hill County Health Department is conducting interviews this week, searching for a possible spread of pertussis, or whooping cough.
The department received confirmation Friday from the state medical lab that a Havre Middle School student had contracted the disease.
"Right now it's just one case, so it's not an outbreak," county nurse Cindy Smith said.
Pertussis is treatable with antibiotics but is very infectious, Smith said. It can be transmitted when a person talks, laughs or coughs, spreading bodily fluids. She stressed that parents should be sure that small children have received an inoculation.
Pertussis can be fatal for very young children, and can also cause serious illness in adults, Smith said. The disease also spreads easily, she added.
Children under the age of 1 are at highest risk of experiencing a serious case. The Health Department recommends they be kept from anybody exhibiting coughing or coldlike symptoms.
Children normally receive an inoculation by 15 months, the first in a series of four doses, and then a fifth dose before starting kindergarten, Smith said. Children under the age of 7 who haven't had the vaccine can still be inoculated.
"They might get enough antibodies on board to help protect them," Smith said.
The inoculation wears off by middle school, Smith said. The Federal Drug Administration is reviewing a vaccine for adults, but it has not yet been approved. For people over the age of 7, the key is identifying and treating sick people quickly, Smith said.
The Health Department, working closely with the Havre Middle School nurse, has identified more than 10 people who may have contracted pertussis, Smith said. The test for the disease takes one week, so some doctors have chosen to start treatment before confirming infection, she said. After five days of treatment, patients are told they can return to school or work without risk of spreading the disease further.
From the moment a case is identified, health officials can expect to continue the search for other sick individuals for another 42 days, ending 42 days after the last case is identified, Smith said. The Health Department is interviewing all of the sick child's contacts from the past three weeks, a period the state Department of Health and Human Services has told Hill County is the longest period the child could have been infectious. The search could potentially turn up the path by which the child was infected, as well as anyone the child may have unwittingly infected.
This year, Montana has already had 47 reported cases of pertussis, Smith said. That compares with five in each of the previous two years. Cases were identified in Great Falls earlier this fall, as well as in North Dakota.
"It's cyclical," Smith said. She said she is reviewing updates from the state.
Pertussis can begin like a cold, with a runny nose and a cough, but the cough often becomes constant, and can even cause vomiting, Smith said.