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Professor diagnosed with pertussis

By Heather Zajdel

Section: News

October 21, 2005

This Wednesday the Brandeis Health Center, in accordance with Massachusetts law, sent email notification to the University community of a confirmed case of pertusis, commonly known as whooping cough, on campus. Elaine Hiller, lecturer of Biology at Brandeis, developed the symptoms of pertussis earlier this semester and, in an email interview, told The Hoot that [b]ased on when I got sick, the state lab estimated that I was contagious until October 5th.

According to the Pertussis Advisory from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, [p]ertussis is a cough illness whose symptoms can range from mild to severe. It usually begins with cold-like symptoms, with a runny nose, sneezing and dry-cough. The cough lasts for a week or two, then slowly gets worse. The next stage, which lasts from four to six weeks, is marked by uncontrollable coughing spells, often followed by vomiting.

Pertussis is only life threatening in small children and a vaccine is widely available for them. There is no vaccine for older children or adults, according to the Health Centers medical alert. As it is a caused by bacteria, Pertussis is spread by direct contact with secretions (i.e., saliva, sharing lip balm or drinks) and by direct cough exposure.

Kathleen Maloney, RN, CNP, Nursing Director and Co-Administrator of the Health Center stated that there is a pretty slim likelihood that a professor would spread her infection to Brandeis students.

Hiller currently teaches one Human Genetics class, there are 31 students in that class. Maloney told The Hoot it would take ten hours of contact per week with someone with pertussis to be at a high-risk for becoming infected. Therefore her class, which meets for a total of three hours a week, would most likely not provide sufficient exposure to spread the disease.

To keep things in perspective, Hiller commented, remember that even my husband did not get sick and the term close contact definitely applies.

This is contagious, but not ridiculously so. If you get a cold, the great likelihood is that it will be just that, but just keep an eye on things. I wrote to my students and colleagues directly so that they could be especially tuned in to symptoms.

While seven people have visited the Health Center with questions and concerns about whooping cough, the Health Center reported that none of Hillers students have displayed symptoms of pertussis. The standard incubation period of 7-10 days has already elapsed. There is, however, always the outlier that gets sicker a little earlier or later, said Maloney.

Aware of this fact, Hiller wrote, Anybody who got this from me would show symptoms by October 26th, a date that is rapidly approaching and which I will be delighted to see come and go without incident.
Maloney said that at the onset of any symptoms in this situation, because pertussis starts out with symptoms resembling a cold, we have a lower threshold for going ahead with treatment.

In order to nip the cough in the bud, possible cases of whooping cough will be treated with the antibiotic Zithromax, a drug which people tend to tolerate well, according to Maloney.

The good news, Maloney told The Hoot, is that every year we have a case or two and it is never more than that although contagious, you dont see a lot of it when there is an identified case.
During my classes, my students probably think Im about to hack up a lung or something, Hiller commented. I really hope that the quality of my teaching has not suffered too badly and, even more, that I have not transmitted this.

Students with a prolonged cough illness are being asked to go to the Health Center for treatment.

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