updated 12/9/2007 9:23:07 AM ET 2007-12-09T14:23:07

Sixteen students at Bob Jones University have or are suspected of having whooping cough, leading officials to end the fall semester about a week early, officials said.

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The college ended its semester Friday and canceled several public events.

“Based on information from health officials we do not believe the illness will spread as our students go home to their families,” university spokeswoman Carol Keirstead said.

The outbreak appears to have started when one infected student returned to campus this fall, Keirstead said. Twelve students are confirmed to have the bacterial infection, while another four cases are suspected, Keirstead said.

An additional 158 students were tested, isolated and given antibiotics, while 1,200 students who showed no symptoms were given antibiotics as a precaution, she said.

“Our response with antibiotic treatment, the vaccinations and the isolation represents very aggressive precautionary measures and we think that very much contributed to keeping the numbers as low as they are,” Keirstead said.

The private Christian university will require all 4,200 of its students have a current whooping cough vaccination before they can return next semester. Already about 2,000 of them have received the immunization, officials said.

Whooping cough, also called pertussis, is a highly contagious bacterial infection that starts with a mild cough and low fever and later turns into a chronic cough, followed by a “whooping” sound when the person inhales, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

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