Northwood’s Invisible Attacker: Pertussis outbreak affects students

An invisible attacker has entered the halls of Northwood within the last weeks. The assailant is silent, except for the sounds of wracking coughs that gives the disease its name.

Pertussis, also known by its common name of whooping cough and the “hundred day cough,” has infected some Northwood students and put faculty and nursing staff on the chase to corral the highly-infectious disease.

Head school nurse Melissa Lassen has been working with the Chatham County Health Department to contain the spread of whooping cough at Northwood for four weeks. She said that the situation at Northwood is somewhat rare.

“It is something a little unusual,” Lassen said. “All of our students are up-to-date on their immunizations…Everyone we’re coming in contact with has had a recent, up to date Tdap vaccine, so it is a little unusual to see this.”

Tdap is a booster shot that is designed to keep people from contracting pertussis, in addition to diphtheria and tetanus, but it may not be effective after a certain period of time.

“What the state is telling us is that they feel like the vaccine that our students have received has a waning effect, which means that over time that protection against pertussis…gets less and less,” Lassen said.

Though all students have had the vaccine, some are less protected than others.

“Some of our students received the vaccine within the last couple of years, two or three years, and then some, if they’re seniors, it’s actually been like six years since they’ve had it,” Lassen said.

As a way to stop the illness from spreading, the school nurses have asked that some at-risk and infected students stay home from school for a certain number of days. Student Jemimah Shufford stayed home for two days per the request of Northwood High School even though she did not contract whooping cough.

“I didn’t want to get [whooping cough], so I didn’t mind the two days they put me out of school,” Shufford said. “They said I was around somebody that had it, and they didn’t want me to have it. They said I was exposed to whoever it was but they never told me who it was.”

Lassen said we may have seen the worst of the outbreak already.

“Each week, we have a few more students that are identified, and with that we continue to screen those students that have close contact with anyone that’s positive,” Lassen said. “Hopefully we’re seeing things slow down now; that’s our goal and that’s what we’re feeling like at this point, but that could change in a day or two if we find out there are more cases.”

Shufford echoed a view that has been overheard from other students as well.

“I think they should quarantine the whole school: shut it down and have everybody get treatment for it, or antibiotics,” Shufford said.

Assistant principal Valencia Toomer added her response to the illness’ prevalence during the past weeks.

“Whooping cough is very common,” Toomer said. “I think that, unfortunately, a case here and there is popping up at our school, and I understand that there are some cases in surrounding counties as well.”

Lassen explained that pertussis does not pose a significant danger to most high school-aged students.

“The biggest risk is to those people who fall into what we consider a high risk category, which would be children—that’s infants that are a year of age or less, pregnant women that are in their third trimester [and] anyone that has a chronic health condition that causes them to take any kind of immunosuppressant, medications or someone that’s taking chemotherapy; that’s an immune suppressant. The general public is at risk, but not to the extent that those high-risk people are.”

-By Adrianne Cleven