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Oakland schools move quickly to vaccinate students against whooping cough

on October 7, 2011

Personal and automated phone calls, advertisements on the sides of local buses, and a team of school nurses have been working to spread the word throughout the Oakland school system about a new requirement for seventh through 12th graders—a vaccine against whooping cough.

“We have about 40 nurses that have been traveling around the district to get students vaccinated,” said school district spokesman Troy Flint.  “The rates of non-response have been proportional to the size of the schools.”

Whooping cough, or pertussis, is a highly contagious bacterial disease of the lungs and the respiratory system.   When those infected cough, they make a “whooping” sound—hence the name. The disease spreads when one breathes in pertussis bacteria.  Anyone who isn’t immunized can contract the disease, and it is sometimes fatal for infants.

According to the Alameda County Public Health Department, most children and adults have been immunized, but the protection weakens over time.  Because the early childhood immunization wears off, this year the California State Assembly made the Tdap booster mandatory for seventh through 12th graders.

The Tdap booster shot is available for anyone over seven years old.  Those under seven should take the DTaP—a five-dosage vaccine that also protects against whooping cough.  DTaP is given to kids at two, four and 6 months, between 12 to 18 months and four through six years old.  However, babies are not fully protected until they receive their third dose, at six months.

In addition to the tell-tale cough, symptoms of whooping cough include breathing problems, sweating spells, and the face turning red or blue. Infant infection signs include gasping or gagging, tiredness, seizures or not breathing.

Under a new state law, within 30 days of the first day of 2011-2012 school year, all seventh through 12th graders must verify that they were vaccinated against whooping cough before they can continue attending any private or public school.   If the students are not in compliance, they cannot attend classes until they receive the shot.

“We’re not explicitly turning students away,” Flint said.  “We are targeting each student with outreach.”  Nurses have been traveling to middle and high school in the district, vaccinating students as soon as school officials receive a signed consent form from parents or guardians.

Ninety percent of the seventh through 12th graders in OUSD, according to school officials, had received the whooping cough vaccination by September 30.  But that’s not enough.  By the end of today, OUSD hopes to have increased that percentage to 95.

The law was approved after last year’s whooping cough outbreak, which included 9,349 reported cases and 10 infant deaths throughout the state. Alameda County reported 403 cases. As of August 10, 137 cases of whooping have been reported in Alameda County this year.  Throughout the state., 2,164 have been reported.

Since the district receives funds according to the number of days a student is in class, every day that a student is absent–even if it’s an excused absence for illness — the school will lose money for the next school year.

For nine months, the district has conducted a campaign to inform the public about the new law.

Beginning next school year, all students entering 7th grade will need proof of a Tdap shot before they start school.

Image: Photo courtesy of Sanofi Pasteur. 

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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