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A medical problem is getting attention in area classrooms, as reported this week by at least three area public school districts.

“It has come to our attention that you (or) your child may have been exposed to a person who has pertussis (whooping cough),” said a letter sent out Tuesday by Penns Manor Area Superintendent Daren Johnston.

“Pertussis is a highly contagious disease that is spread through the air when an infected person sneezes or coughs,” Marion Center Area Superintendent Clint Weimer wrote in a letter to parents there.

“The Indiana School District has been notified of a few confirmed cases of pertussis (whooping cough) in our district,” Director of Education Robert J. Heinrich Jr. confirmed Thursday in an email to the Gazette.

“Pertussis begins with cold symptoms and a cough which becomes much worse over 1-2 weeks,” Weimer wrote. “Symptoms usually include a long series of coughs (‘coughing fits’) followed by a whooping noise. However, older children, adults and very young infants may not develop the whoop. People with pertussis may have a series of coughs followed by vomiting, turning blue, or difficulty catching their breath.”  

As letters posted on Marion Center Area and Penns Manor Area websites point out, in rare cases, especially in infants less than 1 year of age, whooping cough can be fatal.

A spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Health said several cases have been reported in Indiana County.

“We have been working closely with the (Indiana County) school districts and other school districts in the area to prevent the spread of illness,” department Press Secretary Nate Wardle said Thursday afternoon. “Department of Health template letters with recommendations have been provided to area school districts for distribution to faculty and families of students.”

In online postings by Weimer and Johnston, the letters hew closely to what Wardle’s department has sent out.

“If you (or) your child is coughing, promptly contact your (or) your child’s doctor,” the Penns Manor superintendent posted. “(The) doctor may obtain a nasopharyngeal culture to test for pertussis. In addition, if the doctor suspects pertussis, an antibiotic will be given to your child to lower the chance of spreading the disease to others.”

Johnston stressed in his letter that the child continue taking that antibiotic even after he or she is back in the classroom, something that is allowed to happen five days after the child began taking it.

“Each and every time, we notify all affected parents and staff through our emergency messaging system, using the materials recommended by the Department of Health,” Indiana Area’s Heinrich said. “These materials include a letter warning the parents and staff of the possible exposure, and a tip-sheet on how they can protect themselves and their families. We also contact the staff members and families of students who are immunocompromised, or those who have opted out of vaccinations to warn them of their elevated risk of infection.”

Wardle said there also is protection afforded when a child and/or parent gets vaccinated.

“The department encourages everyone to check and make sure they are up to date on all immunizations, which includes the DTaP vaccine for children under 7, and the Tdap vaccine for older children and adults,” he said.

“We are very fortunate to have such a great team at the (state) Department of Health,” Heinrich said. “The professionals there are knowledgeable, very helpful and always available when we need their guidance.”

As noted in department talking points quoted in the Penns Manor and Marion Center letters, both vaccines combine diphtheria, tetanus and acellular pertussis vaccine.

“If you are not sure your child is properly immunized, promptly contact his or her doctor,” both superintendents included in their letters. Both letters referred parents and physicians to a toll-free Department of Health number, (877) 724-3258.