By Saj Sri-Kumar
As you walk down the hallway of Chalmers on your way to your math class, you might hear a student cough many times in succession. At first it appears as if it’s just another student with a cold, but when he coughs so much that he is struggling to fill his lungs with air and takes deep inhalations, it becomes clear that it is something more serious: pertussis, better known as whooping cough.
Pertussis, a highly contagious disease that is occasionally fatal, has infected seven times more people in California since June 1 than the same time period last year, resulting in the most cases in 52 years. As a result, the California Department of Public Health has declared a statewide epidemic.
While often associated with infants, teenagers and adults are at a greater risk than before for two main reasons.
First, many vaccinations that people may have gotten as young children have worn off and the protection that they afforded has weakened, pediatrician Cara Natterson ’88 said.
Second, many adults and teenagers will go to work or school despite being sick to avoid having to make up work.
Natterson said that this causes the disease to spread to peers, and she suggested that anyone who feels sick should see a doctor.
“When people cough into their hand and then touch a doorknob or a desk, they leave bacteria on the surface; the next person to come along and touch the same can easily pick it up. We all touch our eyes, noses, and mouths throughout the day, often unknowingly. When we do this, we expose our bodies to bacteria and viruses that we have come into contact with in the environment,” Natterson said.
“This is why hand washing is so important. If you eat a sandwich without washing your hands, you are ingesting all of the things you have touched in your community. If you wash with soap and water, then the germs from your surroundings don’t get into your body,” she said.
Additionally, not every student has necessarily been vaccinated against the disease, even as a child. Harvard-Westlake’s Director of Sports Medicine Sandee Teruya said that while the school strongly recommends students receive the vaccination, it is not required.
The school has announced that as a result of the pandemic, it will be offering the “TDAP” vaccine to all faculty at the annual Health and Wellness fairs, as part of the school’s health insurance for faculty. That vaccine will include protection to tetanus and diphtheria in addition to pertussis.
There are three distinct phases of symptoms that one experiences once infected.
The first is similar to the common cold in many respects, and consists of the same symptoms. This stage is also when the disease is most contagious.
The second phase, also know as the “paroxysmal” phase, is characterized by periodic spurts of coughing, often followed by a deep inhalation.
Natterson said that the deep inhalation often sounds like a “whoop,” giving the disease its popular name.
The final phase is a gradual recovery, during which the cough slowly subsides.If one is diagnosed with pertussis, the disease can be treated using antibiotics.
However, a recurring problem is that many people do not think they have pertussis and spread it to others. Additionally, many doctors do not think to test for it initially, Natterson said.
“My advice is to have the doctor check you by listening to your lungs and doing a quick physical exam—this is always better than running to a lab and just getting a lab test. When you feel sick, and certainly when you have significant cough, an exam by a doctor is always a good idea,” Natterson said.