June 18. 2013 2:06PM

Londonderry students who haven't had whooping cough vaccine asked to stay home

Union Leader Correspondent

LONDONDERRY - Students who haven't been immunized against pertussis (whooping cough) are being asked to stay home after an outbreak of the communicable disease was confirmed at Londonderry Middle School this week.

On Tuesday, a letter was sent home to parents alerting them that a school staff member tested positive for the illness. The sick teacher was the third person in the school to come down with whooping cough this month, according to Superintendent Nathan Greenberg.

State health officials qualify three or more pertussis cases within a single school as an outbreak, Greenberg noted, and district policy dictates that students who haven't had the pertussis vaccine must be kept home at this time. It's unclear at this time just how many middle school students haven't had vaccinations.

Londonderry's last day of school is this Friday, so this means that for some students, the school year is already over.

Officials said more pertussis cases are likely to present themselves in the coming weeks, since the disease is highly contagious and it often takes up to two weeks after exposure for symptoms to present.

The bacterial infection is transported from person to person when a patient's coughing and sneezing expels infected droplets into the air. Though deaths from pertussis are rare, the disease is particularly dangerous for the very old, the very young, and those with chronic illnesses.

Officials from the state health department have warned that the illness remains contagious for three weeks after the onset of severe coughing, though antibiotic treatment can reduce symptom severity.

Whooping cough initially appears similar to the common cold, with patients having a runny nose and a low-grade fever. After one or two weeks, severe coughing spells that can make it difficult for the patient to breathe begin to set in.

Many with the illness suffer such symptoms for up to six weeks, Greenberg said, and not all patients exhibit the telltale "whooping" sound when they cough.

The state Bureau of Communicable Disease Control recommends that children suffering from cough symptoms for more than a week or two seek medical treatment and those with confirmed cases should remain out of school until they've completed a full course of antibiotics.

If antibiotics aren't taken, the patient should be kept home for 21 days after the start of severe coughing.