NewsMissoula County


Health officials offer advice in wake of Missoula whooping cough cases

Posted at 8:18 AM, Apr 25, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-25 10:18:22-04

MISSOULA – Some parents are filling their antibiotic prescriptions after the health department confirms several new cases of pertussis popping up in Missoula.

While the cases are so far limited to young children and teens, adults may need to get a booster shot.

The very contagious, easily-spread infection, pertussis — more commonly known as whooping cough — has been confirmed among several students in the Missoula area.

Local health officials caution that this could be the beginning of a wide-spread problem.

“We have an outbreak developing. We currently have six lab-confirmed cases. We are at about 300 close contacts, we also have tests pending usually every day,” Missoula City-County Health Department Director Ellen Leahy said.

Sentinel High Schoolparents received an email from the school on Tuesday confirming three cases among their students.

Sentinel High School
Sentinel High School in Missoula (MTN News photo)

The health department is working directly with the affected families and the schools to identify close contacts. Once a close contact is identified, the child and the child’s parents will be notified.

Leahy says they are working diligently to prevent as many new cases as possible.

“There are likely more cases out there. From cases we identify contacts which is all really important to try and draw a ring around so it doesn’t continue to spread,” Leahy told MTN News.

The identified cases include both those not vaccinated and vaccinated, and is easily spread from person to person.

“It’s spread by respiratory droplets which start with sneezing but moves on to pretty severe coughing,” Leahy explained. “And it’s particularly dangerous in the younger child, their entire respiratory system, their airway, but it can be severe at any age.”

The initial symptoms are very similar to the common cold, including a runny nose, sneezing, and a mild, occasional cough. This can make it tough to identify.


Ellen Leahy
Missoula City-County Health Department Director Ellen Leahy (MTN News photo)

Leahy says that they are hoping to get the word out to all as quickly as possible so those feeling any symptoms will take it seriously.

“The antibiotics have to be given early in the course of the disease, the antibiotic can stop the reproduction of the bacteria, maybe slow the disease if they already have symptoms,” she said. “It can prevent the symptoms if you’re a contact and you take that antibiotic right away.”

Leahy says it is very important to get a booster shot for adults who haven’t had one since their vaccination or a booster in their early childhood years.

Anyone with questions or concerns about pertussis can call the Missoula City-County Health Department at (406) 258-INFO.

-Russ Thomas reporting for MTN News

Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is a highly contagious respiratory disease caused by a type of bacteria. It can affect people of all ages, but can be very serious, even deadly, for babies less than a year old.

Pertussis symptoms can appear differently and be less severe in vaccinated individuals, but can still be contagious.


  • Pertussis is known for uncontrollable, violent coughing which often makes it hard to breathe. After coughing fits, someone with pertussis often needs to take deep breaths, which result in a “whooping” sound.
  • Symptoms of pertussis usually develop within 5 to 10 days after you are exposed. Sometimes pertussis symptoms do not develop for as long as 3 weeks.
    Early Symptoms
  • The disease usually starts with cold-like symptoms and maybe a mild cough or fever. In babies, the cough can be minimal or nonexistent.
  • Early symptoms can last for 1 to 2 weeks and usually include runny nose, low-grade fever, mild, occasional cough, or Apnea – a pause in breathing (in babies)
  • Pertussis in its early stages appears to be nothing more than the common cold.

Later-stage Symptoms

  • After 1 to 2 weeks and as the disease progresses, the traditional symptoms of pertussis may appear and include fits of many, rapid coughs followed by a high-pitched “whoop” sound, throwing up during or after coughing fits, and exhaustion.

Pertussis in Babies

  • It is important to know that many babies with pertussis don’t cough at all. Instead it causes them to stop breathing and turn blue.

How and When to Get Help

  • If you are experiencing symptoms of Pertussis, see your provider right away.
  • If you or a family member has been identified as exposed, you will receive instructions from the Health Department.
  • The best way to protect against pertussis is by getting vaccinated. Make sure that you and your family are up to date on your immunizations.
  • If you need information on your immunization status, contact your provider or the Health Department.

Need to get vaccinated?

The Missoula City-County Health Department, located at 301 West Alder St., carries the Pertussis vaccine (DTaP & Tdap) and can bill most insurance plans, including Medicaid. They offer a sliding fee scale for those who are uninsured or underinsured.

Call the Immunization Clinic at 406-258-3363 for more information. The clinic offers walk-in hours at the following times: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday
10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday.

If you have not been contacted by the Health Department, no action is needed at this point. If you have additional questions, please contact (406) 258-INFO.