By the Christmas weekend there were 68 confirmed cases of whooping cough in Ottumwa, though public schools closed on schedule for the holiday break. Wapello County’s only one of several around Iowa where whooping cough is more than the usual public-health problem this winter. Ottumwa high school principal Steve Hanson says the public schools didn’t close early, as a small Christian school in Ottumwa did, since the incubation period for the disease is long and people who don’t show symptoms yet can still spread it. It’s 21 days from the time of exposure that the illness is contagious, so although taking antibiotics can eliminate the stage where they’re contagious, he says to really prevent the spread of the disease “everyone in the whole town would have to be taking the antibiotics simultaneously.” Friends and close contacts of the first kids to get sick did take antibiotics, and stayed home a few days in hopes that that would break the chain of infection. But Principal Hanson says it’s too optimistic to assume that’ll halt the spread of whooping cough entirely. He says in 25 or 30 days from now if someone else gets the disease, even if he’d been was taking antibiotics earlier for a time he’ll catch it anyway. The only way to protect yourself for sure, he says, is to catch it. Once you catch it you’re safe from it for a couple years. Hanson says the problem is, the inoculations we get when we’re young wear off by around age 12. He says even newly-vaccinated kindergarten kids are only 70- to 90-percent protected against pertussis. School officials in several districts hit hard by the disease are hoping that its spread is halted while kids are home for winter break.
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