Backpack? Pencils? Pertussis vaccine?
August 16, 2011
As September approaches, health officials are reminding parents that a new state law requires proof of a pertussis, or whooping cough, booster for students entering the 7th through the 12th grades.
The law was passed last year after a dramatic increase in pertussis cases sent the incidence of the disease soaring in California to the highest levels since 1958. More than 9,000 cases were reported, including 10 deaths, most of which were among infants who had not yet been vaccinated.
According to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, four of those babies were in Los Angeles County, where the number of reported pertussis cases quintupled to nearly 900. In normal years, no one dies of the disease.
More commonly called whooping cough, pertussis is a serious and highly contagious respiratory infection that causes violent, uncontrollable fits of coughing and can lead to pneumonia and brain hemorrhages, among other complications. Although most children receive a vaccination, known as Tdap, before kindergarten, the immunization can wear off, and children can remain susceptible into adulthood without booster shots in adolescence.
The incidence of pertussis has risen nationally in recent years along with measles, mumps and a number of other potentially lethal childhood illnesses. To complicate matters, unfounded fears about vaccine safety have been fueled by internet rumors, leading some states to make it easier for parents to opt out of vaccinations that used to be an iron-clad requirement for school enrollment. This, in turn, decreases resistance in the general population, as the proportion of the community immunized against these dangerous, but preventable, diseases falls below the required critical mass.
The new law does allow very limited exemptions, and includes a 30-day grace period allowing schools to let students attend classes if they don’t have their paperwork in order by the first day of class. But the school district still has to work with the family to get the child vaccinated before the final deadline because even if an unvaccinated child survives an infection, he or she can pass it to more vulnerable people, such as infants, the elderly and the ill.
Although 2011 rates have dropped and no deaths have been reported so far this year, the California Department of Public Health reports that whooping cough remains at higher-than-average levels in the state—and higher than the last record year, in 2005.
Parents whose middle- and high-school children have not yet been vaccinated should contact their health care provider. The Los Angeles Unified School District has been offering free vaccines this month, along with a number of community groups. For a list of places to go in Los Angeles County for free and low-cost immunizations, click here and here. For more information from the county Department of Public Health, click here. For information in Spanish, click here.