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Volume CXXXIII, Number 10
November 21, 2003

Whooping cough infects one student, possibly more

Fears of whooping cough should not cause you to put up the do-not-enter sign, hide in your dorm room, or break out the emergency supply of Ramen noodles, according to College and state health officials.

Bowdoin College physician Dr. Jeff Benson announced via e mail Wednesday that there has been one confirmed case of whooping cough on campus. Yesterday, Benson said that there is no reason to be extremely worried.

"I think it's something for people to be concerned about and to watch for," he said in a phone interview. "At the moment there's no evidence that we're dealing with a greater outbreak."

Geoff Beckett, an assistant epidemiologist for the Maine Bureau of Health, concurred. "Brunswick has had sporadic cases, but has not had a significant outbreak at this point," he said.

Bowdoin's health center contacted the Bureau of Health to report the diagnosis. Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a Category 1 infection. This means that health care providers are required under Maine law to report incidents to the Bureau of Health immediately.

"We have provided consultation and made recommendations through telephone and e mail communication with the College physician," Beckett said.

"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a standard set of recommendations for dealing with pertussis cases in different settings and this guidance provides the context for specific recommendations at Bowdoin," Beckett said.

Benson is currently recommending that students wash their hands frequently, and shield others from sneezes and coughs using their arm and not their hands. This is important, he said, because "living conditions for students here increases the contagions for things dramatically."

Benson said, though, that whooping cough usually does not cause long-term problems for college students. Healthy children and adults will go through multiple stages of unpleasant coughs for up to five weeks. These coughs can be so forceful that the victim may vomit, but the infection will go away naturally or with antibiotics.

"The real issue is the possibly of spread to people who are immunocompromised," he said.

With Thanksgiving break only days away, students will be in contact with young cousins and elderly grandparents. Pertussis can be serious or fatal for infants, pregnant women in their third trimester, the elderly, persons undergoing chemotherapy, and people with HIV. Over the past two days the Health Center has been receiving many questions about risk for these people, and Benson has been advising especially worried students, "If you have a headcold, you may want to avoid contact."

The Bureau of Health's Beckett also recommended students who show symptoms of a cold avoid kissing, "extended in-the-face contact," and sharing rooms for long periods of time with people who have a high risk of complication.

Beckett said that for students who show no symptoms, there is no need to skip Thanksgiving dinner. "Persons who have been exposed to pertussis but do not have respiratory illness present no risk of transmitting infection to others," he said. "In practical terms that means that the Bowdoin student on Thanksgiving vacation would not need to limit contact with infants or pregnant women if they are well."

Pertussis is not an entirely uncommon illness, but this year it seems to be hitting Maine harder than in prior years, Beckett said. During most years there are 40 to 50 cases in Maine, and this year, almost 80 cases have hit the state.

"We have seen smoldering outbreaks in five Maine communities around the state since early summer," Beckett said.

By midday yesterday, only one Bowdoin student had been confirmed by laboratory tests to have pertussis. The student has received treatment for at least six days and is no longer contagious, so he or she is not in quarantine, Benson said. Other students who are expected to have the infection but have not yet been confirmed are already undergoing treatment.

"I'm not terribly worried about it, but we want people to be careful and responsible about it," Benson said. It's kind of a public health concern rather than a medical concern."

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