Whooping cough hits schools in Lexington, Estill County, Northern Kentucky

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Photo illustration Wichita Eagle

Five cases of whooping cough have been confirmed at Clays Mill Elementary School, and the Lexington health department is urging parents to keep home students who have symptoms of the highly contagious illness.

Three additional children came down with pertussis, a respiratory illness spread by coughing and sneezing, after the first two cases occurred Jan. 20 and Jan. 31, Fayette County Health Department spokesman Kevin Hall said.

The illness is hitting other schools in the state. WKYT-TV reported that Estill County’s health department had confirmed 10 cases at two schools Wednesday. Nine were at West Irvine Elementary, the other at Estill County High School.

There also has been a recent outbreak of whooping cough in Northern Kentucky, said Beth Fisher, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

Fisher said Kentucky Department of Public Health officials are aware of the outbreaks in Fayette and Estill counties and are assisting both local health departments.

The illness affects people of all ages, but it can be most serious for infants and anyone with chronic diseases or weakened immune systems.

High-risk students who are exposed to whooping cough should take preventative antibiotics, according to the health department. Students living with babies or pregnant women also need preventative medicine.

Children with symptoms should go to the doctor, even if they have previously been vaccinated. Students with confirmed pertussis should remain out of school until they finish antibiotics, according to the health department. For more information about pertussis, call 859-231-9791.

The early symptoms are similar to a common cold: runny nose, sneezing, low-grade fever and coughing. After one to two weeks, the cough often gets worse, changing from a dry, hacking cough to bursts of uncontrollable, sometimes violent coughing. During a coughing episode, it might be temporarily impossible to take a breath. When finally able to breathe, the person might take a sudden gasp of air, which can cause a “whooping” sound. Vomiting and exhaustion can often follow a coughing spell.

The vaccine against pertussis is routine and is required for school-age children, Hall said.

The health department doesn’t recommend that schools close to stop the spread of pertussis because of the length of time — six weeks — required to be effective.

There were 184 cases reported in Kentucky in 2015, the latest year for which numbers were available.

Additional vaccine has been supplied to Estill County. Fayette County has an adequate supply of vaccine, Fisher said.

She said if diagnosed, an individual should be treated with antibiotics and the medication should be taken for five days before returning to daycare, school or work. The entire course of medication should be completed, Fisher said.

Aside from the outbreaks, Fisher said whooping cough cases are routinely reported in Kentucky.