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Harford health officials investigating multiple cases of whooping cough at John Carroll School in Bel Air

John Carroll officials say they are aware of at least nine confirmed cases of pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough, at the Bel Air school. State and county health departments are investigating the outbreak.

The private Catholic school has notified all parents and guardians and continues to be in daily contact with the Harford County Health Department, following their guidelines and instructions as recommended, said Karen Everett, John Carroll’s associate director of creative services.

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There have been no interruptions to school operations as a result of the outbreak, Everett said.

An email from John Carroll Principal Tom Durkin sent Monday to the school community and obtained by The Aegis, said the outbreak at the school coincides with pertussis outbreaks in other parts of the country, including Central Virginia, Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Illinois.

“Contrary to rumors, no teachers or international students have been affected,” Durkin wrote.

The school is also “restructuring” its Advent Prayer Service originally scheduled for Friday “to avoid the congregation of the entire student body in one place," he wrote.

Durkin also addressed in the email the school’s daily cleaning practices, though he noted “no additional disinfecting is recommended, as pertussis is conveyed by being in close contact with an infected person who is coughing/sneezing. It is spread through the air and not by touching surfaces.”

Harford County Public Schools have also been notified of the outbreak at John Carroll, said Molly Mraz, a spokeswoman for the Harford County Health Department.

Because there has not been an outbreak in the public school system, it has not disseminated any information about whooping cough to its school community, Eric Davis, the chief of administration for Harford County schools, said.

“We continue to consult with the Harford County Health Department on this issue and will follow their directives,” he said.

Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is a highly contagious respiratory disease known for uncontrollable, violent coughing which often makes it hard to breathe, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its name comes from the “whooping” sound someone who has contracted the bacterial infection may make taking deep breaths following a coughing fit.

Whooping cough is rare, with only 117 confirmed cases reported in Maryland last year, Mraz said. It is spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Mraz said anyone within three feet of an infected person who coughs or sneezes would be at risk of becoming infected themselves.

Pertussis is a reportable disease, and John Carroll and health department officials in Harford County were notified of the whooping cough cases in November by the Maryland Department of Health, Mraz said.

Since then, the county’s health department has been working with both John Carroll and the state to investigate the outbreak involving school-aged children.

“At the outset, John Carroll High School officials sent a notice notifying parents of the initial pertussis cases on Nov. 19, recommending preventive precautions and medical attention, including post-exposure prophylaxis antibiotics,” Mraz said.

The notice from the school nurse, which was obtained by Baltimore Sun Media, informs parents that pertussis has been identified at John Carroll, outlines symptoms and how to treat it, and reminds parents to check their child’s immunization records.

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“Infants and young children are usually vaccinated against pertussis, but the vaccine becomes less effective as children get older, and vaccinated children can become infected and spread it to others,” wrote school nurse Michelle Webster.

“Students who have symptoms and are prescribed appropriate antibiotics for suspected pertussis can return to school following the fifth day of treatment. Without antibiotics, a person with pertussis is considered to be contagious, and can spread pertussis to others two (2) weeks before and three (3) weeks after the cough starts.

“It is important that ill students stay home, away from others (especially infants and young children), during this time,” Webster wrote.

With a number of cases identified and a community outbreak established, Mraz said the Maryland Department of Health has urged the local health department to use its resources to educate the community and focus on people who are at high risk of contracting whooping cough, such as infants, pregnant women and those who have compromised immune system.

Babies are at the greatest risk of contracting whooping cough and having serious complications from it. About half of infants younger than 1 year old who get pertussis are hospitalized and 1% of those who receive treatment in a hospital die, according to the CDC.

To prevent contracting pertussis, health officials recommend families practice good hygiene when coughing and sneezing and to seek medical attention if symptoms of whooping cough develop.

Symptoms include a runny nose and sudden uncontrollable burst of spells of coughing that persist. If a child comes down with cold-like symptoms that include a cough, the child should be evaluated by his or her pediatrician and not return to school until medically cleared, health officials said.

Parents should also review their children’s health records to confirm they’ve received the pertussis vaccine.

If parents notice whooping cough-like symptoms in their child, they should contact their primary care physician and the Harford County Health Department at 410-612-1774.

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