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Johnson County Works To Contain Whooping Cough Outbreak

Elana Gordon

Johnson County, Kansas is in the midst of a whooping cough outbreak. It's not as bad as in Washington State, where they’ve declared an epidemic of the disease.  But health workers and schools in the region have been taking extra steps to get a handle on the disease.

Something "Other Than The Norm"

Nancy Tausz, a disease specialist with the county, says the outbreak surfaced in mid-April.

“With that many cases come in, and continually, you know something other than just the norm is happening,” Tausz says.

The county is now investigating more than 130 cases of the disease. Tausz says at first, it was concentrated in the southern part of the county.

“The ages we saw at the beginning were fifth grade and sixth grade,” Tausz says. “And then started expanding from fifth grade to eighth grade.”

The Response

Tausz and others at the health department got in touch with school nurses, who then identified students that had been in the same room for more than an hour with anyone that had whooping cough. The schools then looked up who, among those students, wasn’t already vaccinated for the disease, either for religious or medical reasons.

“Those students would either need to be excluded for 21 days, or they would need to choose to have a vaccine within 24 hours [if they were able], and then they could return to school,” says Tausz.

Students in close contact with someone with whooping cough got medication to prevent symptoms from developing.  

Meanwhile, the department is now advising anyone with close contact with infants – new moms, adult siblings, day care providers – to get a booster shot for the disease, either through one’s doctor or at one of the health department’s vaccine clinics

Disease Symptoms

Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a bacterial infection. The disease can be serious, particularly for infants. If diagnosed quickly, it can be treated with antibiotics.  The most common symptom? A cough.

“Especially for a younger person, you cough and cough usually for a period of two weeks,” Tauzs says.

Some infants might just seem lethargic.

“But usually, maybe an older infant or toddler, they cough and cough so hard that they have projectile vomiting,” says Tausz. “But that’s the main thing, this cough that lasts and lasts and lasts. Even after someone is treated, they can cough for another month or five weeks afterwards. They’re not infectious if they’ve been treated, but they continue to have this persistent cough for weeks.”


Whooping cough used to be a leading cause of illness and death among children until a vaccine came out for it in the late ‘40s.  Schools require the vaccine, but the effectiveness can wane over time, so there’s also now a booster shot for older kids and adults.  

“One of the most important strategies for reducing the burden of pertussis is getting adults and other caregivers, particularly for infants, vaccinated with the vaccine [booster],” says Charles Hunt, state epidemiologist for Kansas. “That works by not only protecting the individual, but also protecting the community.”

Nowadays, Hunt says, Kansas typically experiences a few whooping cough outbreaks a year, identifying anywhere from 50 to 75 cases of the disease. Riley county is also in the midst of an outbreak.

“The disease goes in cycles,” says Tausz, with Johnson county. “There’s usually always pertussis out there.”

Why the outbreak?

Tausz says a combination of factors have likely led to this most recent outbreak, the largest Johnson county has experienced in some time.

“It could be a number of reasons,” says Tausz. “Vaccine issues, maybe people aren’t immunized. You could hit the ones that are at risk that weren’t vaccinated [for medical reasons]. It could be circumstances that just hit just right. You’ve got people in confined quarters for a while. It just depends.”

Tausz says the vaccine's effectiveness decreases over time, so people often don’t realize their immunity against the disease decreases with time and that they may need a booster shot.  She also says in general, the county is seeing a rise in families who are choosing not to vaccinate their children.

Kansas recently revised its school vaccine requirements for the coming year, now adding 10th graders to the list of those who must have gotten a booster shot.

A Nationwide Issue

Across the country, whooping cough has been creeping back over the last few decades, with more cases being identified. It was a big problem in California in 2010.  Washington State recently declared an epidemic, with nearly 1500 cases so far this year. Tausz is hopeful that won’t happen in Kansas.  One factor working in the its favor? Summer break.

“We’re hoping that with the schools getting out, that that will decrease that close contact with groups of people,” says Tausz. “Again you’ll see more cases coming in because of exposure time, another wave of that, but hopefully then it will decrease.”


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