James Gathany/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
With a new school year on the horizon, state health and school officials are reminding families that all incoming seventh-graders must be vaccinated for whooping cough before returning to class.
The requirement ensures that all middle and high schoolers in the state will be immunized against whooping cough, formally known as pertussis. Last year, following a spike in pertussis cases and deaths, state law required all students in seventh through 12th grades – more than 3 million students in all – provide proof of vaccination or an exemption.
About 500,000 incoming seventh-graders in public and private schools will need immunization against pertussis this year, according to the California Department of Public Health.
"Every year, a new group of kids enters middle school, and those kids are at an age where, based on the studies of effectiveness of Tdap, we know the effectiveness starts wearing out," said Dr. Gil Chavez, state epidemiologist and deputy director of the department's Center for Infectious Diseases.
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Tdap, which vaccinates against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis, provides immunity for about five years, Chavez said. Childhood vaccinations against whooping cough last through elementary school.
The United States is on track to have the highest number of whooping cough cases since 1959, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last month. As of July 19, nearly 18,000 cases had been reported to the agency.
California has recorded 169 cases of pertussis so far this year, down from a peak of 9,156 cases in 2010, when 10 infants died and 809 people were hospitalized. Chavez attributed the lower number of cases to vaccination efforts in the state.
At least 95 percent of a population must be vaccinated for there to be "herd or community immunity," Chavez said. Below that threshold, he said, there's greater risk of an outbreak.
Nearly 98 percent of California students in seventh through 12th grades were immunized against pertussis [PDF] last year, according to the Department of Public Health. About 2.2 percent submitted personal belief exemptions and another 0.2 percent had permanent medical exemptions from the vaccination.
Students who submitted personal belief exemptions for vaccines in earlier grades will have to submit a new exemption for the seventh-grade pertussis immunization, Chavez said. By law, seventh-graders must have proof of vaccination or an exemption by the start of school. Unlike last year, when the new law took effect, there is no grace period for immunization this year.
About 2,000 students in the San Francisco Unified School District were barred from class one month into school last year because they had not yet been vaccinated. If any of the 3,400 incoming seventh-graders come to campus unvaccinated this year, school officials will provide families with a list of vaccination clinics where students can get the shot, said Heidi Anderson, a district spokeswoman.
The district has reminded families to vaccinate students against whooping cough through automated phone calls, school counselors, its website and its enrollment office. Other districts, including Elk Grove Unified, near Sacramento, have made similar efforts.
Elk Grove Unified has about 4,860 seventh-graders starting school this year. The district has been calling families about the pertussis vaccination requirement since April, said Elizabeth Graswich, a district spokeswoman.
Students who show up to school without immunization won't be given class schedules, and their parents will be called to pick them up. Graswich said she hopes that by hosting two immunization clinics this month, the district will not have to turn away students.
"We feel fairly confident that our students will get vaccinated," she said.