BLUE HILL — Eleven cases of whooping cough, a highly contagious respiratory disease, have been confirmed at George Stevens Academy (GSA) since the beginning of November, said GSA School Nurse Nikki Jaffray.
A case was also recently confirmed at Ellsworth Elementary-Middle School (EEMS), according to a letter to parents from EEMS school nurse, Melissa L. Veith.
The disease spreads through the air and can be very serious, particularly for newborns, who are too young to be vaccinated. Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is treated with antibiotics.
“This case of whooping cough has been a little strange,” said Jaffray, adding that she believed the school is “finally clear.”
Jaffray said she did not have numbers available for 2017 but that this year’s “outbreak” had been unusual.
“The students we didn’t expect to have it had it … We were seeing a lot of kids that were vaccinated and they were still getting it,” said Jaffray.
The Maine Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported a total of 31 cases of pertussis in Hancock County in December and 17 in November. The CDC did not respond to requests for more information by press time.
The state of Maine requires students to be vaccinated against whooping cough, said Jaffray, although students can be exempted for “philosophical, religious, or medical reasons,” according to the Maine CDC website. Jaffray said George Stevens has some students who are exempt, but “it’s probably the average for the rest of the schools in the area.”
Jaffray explained that the vaccine “works for herd immunity,” such as casual contact in the grocery store. But “if you’re sitting in a classroom or any close space for six hours and someone’s coughing next to you, you’re probably going to get it.”
“Anyone can get pertussis,” Ellsworth nurse Veith wrote in the letter to parents, even those who have had the vaccines, which are known as DTaP and Tdap (Tdap is a booster vaccine recommended for adults and children over 11).
The Maine CDC confirmed the case at EEMS, according to Veith’s letter.
In its early stages whooping cough appears similar to a cold, according to the CDC, with sneezing, a runny nose, fever and cough.
“After one or two weeks the cough gets worse and occurs in sudden, uncontrollable bursts where one cough follows the next without a break for breath,” according to the CDC. “The person may look blue in the face and have a hard time breathing and, after a coughing spell, the person may throw up.”
Cases of whooping cough have been rising in recent years, according to the CDC, and rates have been higher in Hancock County than elsewhere in the state.
Hancock was one of four counties, including York, Sagadahoc and Waldo, where rates were above the state level in 2018, with 31 total cases reported. In December, three of the four statewide outbreaks were in Hancock County, according to the CDC.
Although Maine accounted for a mere 2 percent of the nation’s whooping cough cases in 2017, the state had the highest rate in the country, at an incidence of 30.69 cases per 100,000 residents, far above the nationwide incidence rate of 5.83.
The next highest rate was in Vermont, which had a rate of 17.32 cases per 100,000 residents, while neighboring New Hampshire had a rate below the nationwide average.
Maine identified 446 cases of whooping cough in 2018, up from 410 in 2017 and 259 the year before.
Nationwide, cases of pertussis began rising in the early 1990s after peaking over 250,000 in the 1930s, according to the CDC. Thirteen deaths due to pertussis were reported nationwide in 2017, nine of which were in children under a year old.