A recent outbreak of pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough, at California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo has local authorities reminding Santa Barbara residents to protect themselves and their children from the highly infectious disease.
On Feb. 16, the San Luis Obispo County Health Dept. confirmed one positive case of the highly contagious respiratory disease in a male freshman living in the residence halls. Due to the close living quarters in the dormitory setting, the Health Dept. isolated 30 people that the student had come in contact with in the Sierra Madre Residence Hall, San Luis Obispo County Communicable Diseases Manager Janelle Gorman said. Santa Barbara County Public Health Dept. Deputy Director Michele Mickiewicz said only two cases of whooping cough have been reported in Santa Barbara in 2006, but she said Santa Barbara’s physicians are always careful to check for any link between local cases of the disease and those in nearby towns.
Symptoms of pertussis include a cough that persists for more than two weeks with increasing severity, as well as episodes of severe coughing and vomiting, Gorman said. She said the 30 quarantined students from Cal Poly have been released and no additional cases of whooping cough have been reported.
“Countywide, there have been 110 confirmed cases reported to date,” Gorman said. “We are very concerned because of the highly contagious nature of the disease and the close quarters of the dorms.”
Marina Perez, the head of nursing at the Cal Poly Health Center, said she thinks the measures taken to contain the disease were effective.
“All the people in quarantine are out now and we have seen no other reports of students with the symptoms,” Perez said. “I think it was handled well.”
According to the Santa Barbara County Public Health Dept. website, Santa Barbara typically averages about seven cases of whooping cough each year. In 2005, at least 20 cases of the disease were reported.
Mickiewicz said the Santa Barbara County Public Health Dept. closely monitors cases of whooping cough and keeps tabs on whether there are any connections between cases of the disease in Santa Barbara County and instances of it in other places.
“If a physician identifies a case, he is required to report it to public health and we do case contacts, following all the people that the person has come in contact [with],” Mickiewicz said. “This type of investigation is what might link cases such as the one in Cal Poly with cases in [Santa Barbara County].”
Whooping cough can affect people of all ages, but is particularly dangerous to infants and the elderly, Gorman said.
“For adults, the disease may be mild, but for infants and older people, especially those who haven’t had their vaccinations, it can be deadly.” Gorman said.
The best way for local residents to avoid contracting whooping cough is to get themselves and their children vaccinated, Mickiewicz said. Vaccinations often wear off approximately 10 years after they are administered, and booster shots are required to maintain immunity to the disease. Mickiewicz said students and local residents who cannot afford to pay for the vaccination or the booster shot can get them both for reduced prices at one of the county’s public health clinics.
“There are vaccines available at our public clinics and kids are required to have several vaccines before they enter school, including [one for] pertussis,” Mickiewicz said. “Also, a newly approved booster vaccine is now given because, as you get older — typically 10 years after the initial vaccination — your immunity starts to wear off. We offer this to children and adults.”
More information about how to obtain a whooping cough vaccination can be found at the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department website, www.sbcphd.org.