Comorbidities: Pertussis and Moral Certainty
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Comorbidities:
Pertussis and Moral Certainty

Nestled near a university student housing area was this small oasis of forested tranquility—a small private elementary school that I had decided to send my children to. It was [End Page 163] an idyllic place, which assuaged all the concerns many modern parents have; the school was focused on outdoor play and physical activity, with a ‘no homework’ policy in the early grades, all of which appealed to my parental sensibilities at the time.

Populated by students from diverse backgrounds, a grouping of parents could involve artists, blue–collars, hipsters, militant vegans, the unemployed, a university Dean or two, as well as physicians. The teachers were excellent, the environment seemed to be densely enriched, and my children enjoyed their first two months there.

Two months into school, the contentment and growth in my children assured me that I had made a very good decision. I was just allowing myself to dip my toes into a pond of self–congratulations when the first email arrived.

“We have received confirmation that 6 students in the preschool programs and 1 teacher in the school have tested positive for pertussis (also called “whooping cough”). The students have left the school and we don’t anticipate any major outbreak. All the same, please monitor yourself and your children for symptoms.”

While this kind of announcement at an elementary school is not surprising, the closing statement in the email sat me straighter in my chair: “It should be noted that all the affected students and staff were immunized against pertussis prior to their contracting the illness.”

In my region of Canada, pertussis is part of the publicly–funded immunization schedule for children between four and six years of age, so it was conceivable that some of the youngest children could not yet be vaccinated, but to have all of them vaccinated and still have an outbreak seemed questionable.

The month continued on with more email announcements of students and staff joining the ranks of the ill and homebound. My children, both vaccinated within the timeframe, continued attending the school, which was becoming more and more abandoned with each passing week. I closely monitored my daughters, one of whom was classmates with a number of students who had disappeared during this outbreak, leaving me with the impression that they were among the afflicted.

During one end–of–school pick up, which allowed me a moment to speak with my youngest daughter’s teacher. She was more exhausted than usual, and was taking my chance encounter as an opportunity to unpack her emotions about the outbreak. She expressed concerns about the upcoming Christmas concert and the meeting between parents and school administration that would precede the concert. While she spoke, I was overwhelmed by the sense that there were problems afoot that were greater than an outbreak of whooping cough. One could not avoid the sense that much was going unspoken.

I did my awkward best to offer comfort, but my mind was increasingly uneasy about the unfolding of the outbreak. Why underpublicized meetings? Why had my vaccinated daughters not become sick as well? What was the truth?

I hadn’t heard about this meeting, and took the opportunity to attend. We all gathered in a makeshift boardroom of sorts, the room was greatly undersized for the group who gathered. In there, I saw a number of familiar faces who had long disappeared, looking grim and somber, while the mood in the room was some heady combination of intensity, confusion and concern. Finally, the school Head took her seat at the front of the room and called the meeting to order. She was an older woman, very squared off in appearance, with a short, tight haircut and small round spectacles which she perched on her nose as she fixed us all with a tired, exasperated look. Then, as if she would rather do anything else at that moment, she spoke, “Welcome everyone. We’re here to discuss the problem within our school and how we can best help our students during this time.”

The meeting followed the rather predictable order of things. There were many attempts to build consensus and...


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