Parents of Hellgate High School students received an email on Tuesday, March 4, stating that three cases of pertussis have been confirmed at the Missoula school.

Hellgate High School Principal Lisa Hendrix said the Missoula City County Health Department is in the process of interviewing students considered to be at risk.

"Starting last week we had our first confirmed case, and we are notified by the health department when they are made aware of the fact that a student has come down with pertussis," Hendrix said. "At that point, we go through a protocol of screening students who have had a class with the student with the confirmed case."

Hendrix said the screening is in two parts.

"First, we do a screening with the school nurse, and if the students are symptomatic, they then are screened by the county health nurse," Hendrix said. "The initial screening is a list of eight to ten questions asking if they've had any symptoms like coughing or runny nose. After the initial screening, most students are sent back within just a few minutes and there's no disruption to class. However, if a student is symptomatic, the county health department will contact the parents. They then recommend that the families go to see their doctor and get on a course of antibiotics. Students are sent home for a period of about five days, and if after testing by the health department they are found to be negative, they can return to school."

Hendrix said there had been other confirmed cases at another Missoula High School.

"They had some confirmed cases over at Sentinel earlier in the winter," Hendrix said. "I think they had two or three cases over there."

Pertussis is also known as whooping cough. The Centers for Disease Control says pertussis is a highly contagious respiratory disease, known to produce uncontrollable, violent coughing that can often make it difficult to breathe. After fits of many coughs, someone with pertussis often needs to take deep breaths which result in a 'whooping' sound. The best way to protect against pertussis is by immunization.

Hellgate High School Principal Lisa Hendrix