Whooping Cough at Four Abington Schools Has Parents On Edge

Officials say all of those infected had up-to-date vaccinations.

Copper Beech Elementary is one of the schools affected by the whooping cough outbreak in the Abington School District. (Photo via Abington School District)

Copper Beech Elementary is one of the schools affected by the whooping cough in the Abington School District. | Photo via Abington School District

When Abington business owner Lisa Schaffer heard just before Christmas that a student at Abington High School had been diagnosed with whooping cough, she thought it a bit odd but didn’t think much else of it. Schaffer’s children are in elementary school and junior high, so she wasn’t particularly concerned. Different grades, different buildings. But a few months later, the highly contagious disease has spread to her kids’ schools in Abington, and parents are in a full-blown panic.

“When it came to the junior high, then I got worried,” explains Schaffer, whose children attend Abington Junior High and Copper Beech Elementary. “When I got a second call from the junior high, I thought, wow, this could be bad. And now the elementary school. It scares the crap out of me.”

A total of 13 Abington whooping cough cases have been reported so far this school year, says Judy Bomze, director of pupil services for the Abington School District, which is located in Montgomery County. The schools affected include Abington Senior High School, Abington Junior High School, Copper Beech Elementary School and Rydal Elementary School.

According to Montgomery County Department of Health spokesperson Frank Custer, the majority of the Abington whooping cough cases occurred between January and March, the peak time for the disease. Custer points out that there have been 56 cases throughout the county since January 1st.

Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control say that whooping cough cases fluctuate from year to year, peaking every three years or so. Our last peak was in 2012, so we’re due for another peak now.

“In recent years, between 10,000 and 40,000 cases are reported each year,” says the CDC’s website. “Institutional outbreaks of whooping cough, such as those in a daycare center or school, are common, taking place each year in many states.”

The bacterial infection, also known as pertussis, can cause a debilitating cough, among other symptoms, and whooping cough can be deadly if transmitted to an infant. An elementary school student with the disease will get back to normal in a few weeks, but should that student have a new baby brother or sister at home, the results can be tragic.

Philadelphia magazine first learned of the Abington whooping cough cases on Thursday, when parents in the district began sharing and commenting on Wednesday’s viral BBC story about a pregnant woman who refused the whooping cough vaccine. While pregnant, the Australian woman caught whooping cough and gave it to her newborn baby, who has spent a month in the hospital.

Many of the concerned Abington parents suspected that the infected children in their schools have not been vaccinated against whooping cough. Indeed, the whooping cough vaccine is one frequently targeted by the anti-vaccination movement. But the health department insists that all of those infected had up-to-date whooping cough vaccinations. (Of course, that doesn’t mean that those infected people didn’t get it from an unvaccinated person.)

Pro-vaccination advocate and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia pediatrics professor Paul Offit says that while you’re more likely to contract whooping cough if you aren’t vaccinated than if you are, the whooping cough vaccine just isn’t as effective as doctors would like it to be.

Offit, whose 2015 book Bad Faith explored the deadly 1991 measles outbreak in Philadelphia, explains that we used to have a much more effective whooping cough vaccine, but it had some nasty side effects in children like seizures, high fever and fainting. In the late 1990s, that vaccine was replaced with the one being used today, and this new vaccine is much safer but not as good, he says.

“I don’t think anyone predicted the tradeoff that you now have 40,000 whooping cough cases each year,” observe Offit. The new whooping cough vaccine is administered six times throughout childhood, and Offit says that three years after the fifth dose, only 25 percent of children are fully immune.

“Immunity fades,” says Offit. “But it’s the best chance we’ve got. The good news is, when these kids are in elementary or high school, they are not going to die.”

Follow @VictorFiorillo on Twitter.