Vance Garber

The number of cases of pertussis, more commonly known as whooping cough, among Festus R-6 School District students continues to rise, authorities reported.

As of Tuesday, 16 cases had been confirmed, with 15 Festus High School students and one Festus Intermediate School student testing positive for the disease, district spokesman Kevin Pope said.

Pope said other possible cases are being investigated.

“There have been 62 students who have shown symptoms,” he said.

Of those, 25 tested negative, Pope said.

That leaves 21 more students who the district is either waiting to get test results for or who didn’t get tested or who have undergone treatment, he said.

Pope said some who have shown symptoms began treatments without being tested for the illness.

Those who tested positive for pertussis or who started treatment without testing are required to take antibiotics for five days before returning to school, Pope said.

Jefferson County health officials said no other recent cases of whooping cough have been found in the county.

In an Oct. 31 email to Festus R-6 parents, Superintendent Link Luttrell said unvaccinated students were not the cause for the outbreak of pertussis.

The number of district students who claim the exemption from the whooping cough vaccine amounts to less than 1 percent of the district’s total student population, he said.

Luttrell said the district has tested unvaccinated students for the illness.

As of Tuesday, none of those students had tested positive or displayed symptoms of the disease, he said.

Luttrell said school officials hope the district has turned the corner in regard to the outbreak, but they will continue to keep watching for students who may show symptoms until 42 days after the last student is tested or treated.

“I’d like to think that (the district is coming out of the pertussis outbreak),” he said. “But, because the monitoring period is so long, it’s hard to say.”

Luttrell first sent Festus R-6 parents an email on Oct. 22 informing them that Health Department officials had notified the district that day about two confirmed cases.

Since then, the Health Department has repeatedly updated the district about the outbreak.

According to the Health Department, whooping cough can be a serious bacterial illness, “especially in young, unvaccinated children.”

Symptoms for the disease include a runny nose, sneezing, a mild cough and, possibly, a fever. “After one or two weeks, symptoms could include an explosive cough that can end in vomiting and/or in a high-pitched whoop. Coughing attacks most often occur at night and can remain up to three months,” the Health Department reported.

Dylan Steigerwald, epidemiologist at the Health Department, said the best way to prevent getting whooping cough is to get the immunization. By age 12, most people have had five or six doses of the vaccination. There also is a 10-year booster shot.

He said the disease is spread by coughing and sneezing, so he advises people to cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze and to practice good hand-washing in an effort to prevent spreading it.

The Health Department is recommending that kids who are showing signs of the illness go home, see a doctor and possibly start on medication. 

A person with whooping cough is contagious from the time of the first symptoms until 21 days after a cough begins, the school district reported.

Health Department officials encourage those who believe someone in their home has been exposed to pertussis or has had a cough for seven or more days to contact their health care providers. Lab tests can confirm the illness.

Antibiotics will reduce the contagious periods but may do little to relieve the cough, according to the Health Department information.

--Katelyn Mary Skaggs contributed information for this story.