Parents warned to watch for high-pitched nagging cough of pertussis

A cluster of whooping cough cases in Northwest Tarrant County has prompted health officials to warn parents to be on the lookout for the high-pitched nagging cough that characterizes the disease.

So far this year there have been 50 cases of pertussis, also called whooping cough, in Tarrant County, fewer than the 60 seen last year but still of concern, said Dr. Sandra Parker, medical director for Tarrant County Public Health.

"We may have seen a little cluster in the northwest but it's not going to stay confined there," she said. "Kids are mobile and it can spread anywhere and everywhere kids congregate."

At Remington Point Elementary School on Old Decatur Road in Fort Worth, where four cases have been confirmed, letters were sent home to parents notifying them of the disease, said Kristin Courtney, a spokeswoman for the Eagle Mountain-Saginaw school district. Children who have been in close contact with any confirmed cases were encouraged to get tests, she said. Districtwide letters have gone home alerting parents to symptoms of the disease.

As a precaution, students at Remington Point are no longer participating in small groups and desks have been spread apart, Courtney said. Children with confirmed pertussis must be on antibiotics for five days before returning to school.

"We'll probably do that through the end of the year," she said. "We're trying to do as much as we can to stop the spread from person to person."

Although children are vaccinated to prevent pertussis, the disease has been on the rise nationwide.

In Tarrant County, 255 cases were confirmed in 2008, an increase of over 300 percent from 2007. In 2009, 185 cases were reported.

Statewide, 3,358 cases were confirmed last year, and three people died, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. From 5,000 to 7,000 cases are reported annually in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most deaths occur among unvaccinated children and infants who are too young to be vaccinated or who have serious medical issues.

"It isn't something that is particularly lethal but that doesn't mean it's an issue that should not be taken seriously," Parker said.

Last year, a booster shot for students entering the seventh grade was added to the immunization requirements in Texas. But adults should also get vaccinated, Parker said.

"The disease is highly contagious and since it is in the community people should talk to their physicians about it," she said. "It's not just for kids; it's for grandparents and parents whose immunity may have waned."

Many adults have not been vaccinated since the first grade, so they are susceptible, said Joyce Hood, director of Occupational Health Services for Cook Children's Medical Center.

Although a vaccine for teens and adults was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2005, it will take several years before this population gets vaccinated, which in turn helps protect unvaccinated infants and young children, she said.

With the illness circulating in the community, parents should watch for any cough that lasts more than a couple of weeks, Parker said. Pertussis usually strikes this time of year when the weather is warmer. Although a cough can occur with allergies and colds, with pertussis it drags on for weeks.

"You just cough and cough and cough," Parker said.

"It's out there," she said. "And we want everyone to know about it."

JAN JARVIS, 817-390-7664