As of Dec. 2, there have been approximately 110 cases of pertussis, more commonly known as whooping cough, being investigated in the Waynesboro, Augusta and Staunton areas since Oct. 25. Even though there aren’t any reported cases in the Harrisonburg and Rockingham area yet, these 110 convey a spike from the 2016-18 average of three whooping cough cases in the same areas, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
The outbreak of whooping cough is steadily rising in the area. On Nov. 8, there were only 23 cases of whooping cough in the area.
Whooping cough, a contagious respiratory illness caused by the bacteria Bordetella pertussis, can last up to six weeks, Denise Bonds, director of the Thomas Jefferson Health District at the Virginia Department of Health, said.
“[Whooping cough] sounds often like a seal barking, and you get these proxies of them, so you just keep coughing, coughing, coughing,” Bonds said.
Bonds said most of the newfound cases are found in those who have had the vaccine, but the vaccine lost its strength over time. To combat this issue, Bonds said a “booster,” another vaccine of the immunization, is recommended.
“As many as 80% of immunized household contacts of symptomatic cases become infected, mainly because of waning immunity,” Bonds said.
Additionally, Bonds said that if one has had a tetanus shot, then one’s had the vaccine for whooping cough, as the Tdap shot includes immunization for tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis. The Tdap shot is required for students to attend JMU.
An official diagnosis is reached after going through symptoms, seeing if one has been introduced to the illness prior and, lastly, doing a nasopharyngeal swab, which typically goes through the nose to the back of the throat. The swab is sent off to the lab for testing.
The individuals most at risk of contracting whooping cough are infants, women who are pregnant, those with pre-existing illnesses and the elderly, Bonds said. These individuals are more susceptible than others because of their weaker immune systems.
As far as college student’s susceptibility to whooping cough, Louise Temple, professor of integrated science and technology, said college students on their own are no more susceptible than others to whooping cough. However, they become vulnerable to the illness when they are in close contact with others, such as living in dorms, as the disease is extremely contagious.
“The risk of college students having it is when they go home for the holidays,” Temple said. “Then there are elders around or babies around and that would be the vulnerable population.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, symptoms of whooping cough begin with a low-grade fever, runny nose, occasional cough and sleep apnea in babies. It can present itself as early as five to 10 days after initial contact or as late as three weeks.
The health department is still “continuing to work on case reports for the ongoing outbreak in the Staunton/Augusta/Waynesboro area,” Laura Kornegay, health director of the Central Shenandoah health district at the Virginia Department of Health, said in an email.
“The outbreaks aren’t being counted on a case-by-case basis right now but are being investigated as a whole,” Kornegay said. “There are no cases in the Rockingham County or Harrisonburg region, though.”
The outbreak may continue to spread and potentially make its way to the Rockingham and Harrisonburg areas, and JMU students may become infected. In order to be proactive about the illness, Bonds suggests hygienic steps such as covering one’s mouth when coughing and washing hands frequently.
“If you do become ill, stay away from other people so you don’t infect them,” Bonds said. “Of course, a vaccine can be very helpful. Those are kind of the big ones: good public health, self-isolation if you start to develop a cough. If you do develop a cough, be sure to go to the doctor to get a diagnosis.”
The JMU Health Center declined to comment on the matter, as did Sentara RMH Medical Center. When The Breeze asked to speak with someone from the Rockingham County and Harrisonburg health districts, it was deferred to Kornegay repeatedly.
As far as what’s being done to mitigate the outbreak, Bonds said immunization boosters and prophylactic antibiotics — antibiotics that prevent an illness — are being used. The treatment for whooping cough consists of antibiotics and plenty of rest, Bonds said.
“Pertussis is spread through respiratory droplets, so the best way to prevent is through contact isolation,” Bonds said. “Those that are infected should stay home and should especially stay away from the high-risk groups.”
CORRECTION (Dec. 12, 8:04 p.m.): A previous version of this article stated that 110 cases of whooping cough were confirmed, while in actuality, they were being investigated.
Contact Carley Welch at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.