Outbreak Strikes Campers

This Gram-stained photomicrograph depicts Bordetella pertussis bacteria, which is the etiologic pathogen for pertussis, also known as whooping cough.

This Gram-stained photomicrograph depicts Bordetella pertussis bacteria, which is the etiologic pathogen for pertussis, also known as whooping cough.

An outbreak involving at least 15 cases of whooping cough in Montgomery County is being traced back to a teenager who attended Capital Camps, which just announced the resignation of its camp director.

Pertussis, commonly called whooping cough, is highly contagious and is transmitted through the air when an infected person sneezes or coughs. It also can be spread by sharing food or eating utensils with someone who has whooping cough, according to health officials.

It generally starts like a cold, with a runny nose. The first symptoms do not appear for some seven to 10 days. Within one to two weeks, a low-grade fever and a cough usually begin. As the disease progresses, the cough can be so severe that a person may vomit or crack ribs following a coughing fit.

“We have whooping cough cases every year,” said Mary Anderson, spokesperson for the Montgomery County health department. But “this is the first, I would say, outbreak in a number of years that people can remember.”

The Pennsylvania Department of Health is conducting an investigation into the outbreak as the camp is located in Waynesboro, Pa. A spokesman for that department said his office “cannot confirm or deny” any confirmed cases or details due to confidentiality concerns.

However, Anderson said that there have been confirmed cases at seven Montgomery County schools as of Tuesday, including Cabin John, Julius West and Robert Frost middle schools and Wootton, Walter Johnson and Sherwood high schools. Cold Spring Elementary School also has had a case. Those affected range in age from 9 to 18 years.

The Washington Post reported on Monday that Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax, Va., also reported a case of whooping cough that could be traced back to Capital Camps, which is supported by the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, and draws campers from both locales.

Reached on Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Baltimore County Department of Health said that two potentially unrelated cases of whooping cough had been reported in the county since the beginning of June, but could not release details of those cases. Baltimore area Jewish schools, including the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School and Krieger Schechter Day School, reported that they had not seen any cases of whooping cough among students since the beginning of the school year.

Parents who suspect their child may have whooping cough are urged to go to their doctor. It can be treated through antibiotics. The persons most vulnerable to serious problems are those whose immune systems are weakened, including infants and older adults.

No child was diagnosed with whooping cough while at Capital Camps, said Jonah Geller, the organization’s executive director.

“We had no idea while she was with us that she had whooping cough,” he said of the camper who was first traced back to the camp after coming down with whooping cough after she had left.

Geller said he was informed by the Montgomery County health department that 14 of the 15 cases could be traced back to attendees at the camp’s second session, which ended Aug. 10.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a person with pertussis can infect up to 12 to 15 other people.

Capital Camps is accredited by the American Camp Association and therefore requires all its campers to submit medical forms that include their immunization history, said Geller. Everyone at Capital Camps “absolutely’ had the required vaccinations, including the 14 children who were diagnosed with whooping cough, he said.

The CDC calls pertussis vaccines “effective, but not perfect,” noting that protection decreases over time, a phenomenon called waning immunity.

“Vaccinating is not always a 100-percent guarantee that you won’t get an illness,” said Anderson.

Before the vaccine was widely available, in the 1940s, about 200,000 children became sick and about 9,000 died annually from whooping cough. Currently, there are between 10,000 and 40,000 cases reported each year and fewer than 20 deaths, according to the CDC.

One father, whose high school child had cold-like symptoms but was tested and found not to have whooping cough, said his daughter was placed on antibiotics after camp was over but before school started.

He praised Capital Camps, saying it handled the problem well. There was excellent contact between the camp and campers, he said. “They let us know. They were very, very professional about it.”

At least two emails were sent to parents or guardians to keep them abreast of the situation. Included in an Aug. 25 email was a fact sheet on pertussis and a list of Pennsylvania Department of Health recommendations on what to look for and what to do.

The Sept. 9 email, which was signed by Geller, expressed concern for those affected. “Please know that we are thinking of your children and your family, and we wish everyone affected a speedy recovery,” it said.

The day before, another email was sent out to campers and their families announcing the resignation of camp director Sam Roberts, who started work there in October 2011. Roberts said he was leaving to spend more time with his family, which includes a young son and a daughter.

“Being a camp director is not only a full-time job, but it requires total and complete commitment,” Roberts wrote. “Because of this, I have not always been able to be a part of the lives of my own children, family and friends.”

In a telephone interview, Roberts explained that as much as he has loved Jewish camping his entire life, it has become too difficult to hold a job for which he lives away from home during the camping season, especially because his oldest child is only 4 years old.

“I want to be the best dad and husband I can be,” he said.

While he said he had many great memories, his favorite times at Capital Camps are “that moment when that shy anxious child becomes the child that leads.”

Geller said Roberts’ decision to leave was his own, and that Roberts told him when his children are a little older, he plans to send them to Capital Camps.

“Being a camp director is a very demanding position,” Geller said.

Besides being available continually throughout the camping season, Roberts also had to spend the off season recruiting new campers, which often took place on weekends.

Geller also emailed those involved with the camps to “express my sincere gratitude to Sam for his efforts and accomplishments during the past three years as our camp director. Under Sam’s leadership, we increased the number of our campers, our summer staff retention rate and the overall positive energy and atmosphere of camp.”

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