SKOWHEGAN — There are three confirmed cases of whooping cough in Skowhegan schools, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

A letter was sent home with students Thursday, alerting parents and families about the contagious disease, said School Superintendent Brent Colbry.

“They had a case at the high school, and the state requires us to notify parents of any kids that might have been near that child; so that’s what we’re doing, sending a note home just to advise parents,” Colbry said. “That youngster is being treated, as I understand it. We are following CDC procedure to the letter.”

Whooping cough, or pertussis, is a serious, contagious respiratory disease that can cause long, violent coughing fits and the characteristic “whooping” sound that follows when a person gasps for air.

Dr. Stephen Sears, the state epidemiologist, said two cases were reported among older students and a third one was diagnosed involving a 7-year-old, all in Skowhegan.

“We’ve been having increased pertussis throughout the state for the last nine months or more,” Sears said Thursday. “We had an outbreak that we worked to try to get under control in the Penobscot County area last fall and into this winter. We’re beginning to see some pertussis in southern Maine also.”

Whooping cough has been on the rise in pre-teens and teens, according to a 2011 report by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. In 2009, a quarter of the 16,858 cases of pertussis reported in the United States were among 10- through 19-year-olds.

The Associated Press reported that Washington state’s worst outbreak of whooping cough in decades has prompted health officials to declare an epidemic, seek help from federal experts and urge residents to get vaccinated amid worry that cases of the highly contagious disease could spike much higher.

It’s the first state to declare a whooping cough epidemic since 2010, when California had more than 9,000 cases, including 10 deaths.

School will be in session today in Skowhegan, Colbry said.

“I think that the community is, and should be, aware that whooping cough is in the community,” Sears said. “There’s always a difference between being alarmed and being aware. I think they need to be aware and look for any more updates.”

Colbry said parents should take the necessary measures if their child has cold-like symptoms — a sore throat or a runny nose. Symptoms often develop into a bad cough after one or two weeks.

Whooping cough is spread from person to person usually though coughing or sneezing, according to the letter.

The disease can have severe complications for infants, pregnant women and people with respiratory conditions.

All children, parents and staff members who have the symptoms should be tested, the letter states. Those who show symptoms should be put on antibiotics.

It is important that symptomatic persons stay home from work, day care and school and refrain from social activity until they have completed five days of antibiotic treatment, the letter reads.

Anyone who comes in contact with known cases of whooping cough also may need antibiotics.

Sears said people can get whooping cough even if they have had the vaccine for it, because the vaccine can wear off. He said vaccinations are required for all children before entering kindergarten and booster shots are recommended for children over the age of 11.

Parents can refuse to vaccinate their child, but they have to sign a statement noting that they decline.

For more information on pertussis, visit the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention at www.maine.gov/dhhs/mecdc/ under “Health Topic.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

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