Vaccinations have become a common way for parents and health care professionals to protect children from contracting potentially dangerous illnesses. Shots that prevent measles, mumps and even chicken pox have become commonplace in most pediatrician’s offices and health centers today. While the immunizations have dramatically reduced the incidence of many of these diseases, some are making a reappearance at a rather alarming rate. Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, has been spreading by nearly epidemic proportions in some areas of the country, prompting public health officials to crack down on immunization requirements for children in public schools.
What is Pertussis?
According to PubMed Health, pertussis is a very contagious bacterial illness that results in a violent cough that can make it difficult to breathe. Patients who contract the cough make a wheezing or “whooping” noise during the coughing spells when they try to catch their breath, which is why the illness is also referred to as whooping cough. The disease can affect people of all ages and is particularly dangerous to infants. There is no cure for pertussis, and a bout of the illness usually runs about six weeks. During that time, the patient can infect numerous others, which is why the vaccination was originally developed and is now widely used.
Making a Return
While the vaccination had made pertussis all but disappear for many years, the illness appears to be on the rise once again. Schools across the country are seeing an increased incidence of the disease, with California schools hit especially hard. According to a report at RecordNet.com, there have been more than 1,400 cases of pertussis reported in the state already this year, with the most centered in San Diego County. Last year, the state saw more than 5,000 cases, according to the L.A. Times. This number is the highest in the state since 1950, when California saw more than 6,600 residents were infected.
Even more alarming is the fact that nine infants in California died of whooping cough last year alone. Babies are particularly vulnerable to the illness and often contract the disease from family members who have not yet been diagnosed with pertussis. The young babies who died from pertussis last year were all under three months old, being too young to receive the immunization and too weak to fight off the severe symptoms of the illness.
California is not the only state to be grappling with whooping cough cases this year. A report at Third Age also shows that New York is seeing a rising number of cases of the illness. This year, 13 students in three schools have been diagnosed with the infection. All of the students have been successfully treated.
Dr. James Tomarken, Suffolk County’s health commissioner, told Third Age, “Pertussis has been common in the community in recent years, mostly among adults, in whom immunity has waned. While most individuals will recover fully from pertussis, we are concerned about infants who have not received full immunization and to whom pertussis is particularly dangerous and can be fatal.”
Passing Laws to Protect Populations
To ensure that pertussis does not become a larger health threat in California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger passed a law last fall that required all public school students in the state to get a whooping cough booster shot before starting school. According to a report in the L.A. Times, until that law was passed, California was one of only 11 states across the country that did not require middle school students to receive a booster shot. The legislation had actually been on the table for years, but lawmakers worried about the financial repercussions if the state had to provide vaccinations for the children on Medi-Cal across the state.
According to the new law, all California students must have proof of receiving the proper immunizations by July 1 in order to be allowed to enroll in school for the coming school year. Tammy Evans, health services administrator for Stockton Unified, told RecordNet.com, “There is no grace period for this law. Technically, we are going to be excluding them from school July 1. They will get a letter home that they are not in compliance with the law. The state has been really adamant about that, because whooping cough is still circulating around the community. They don’t want students who could be incubating this to spread it to other unvaccinated students.”
Controversy Regarding the Law
Despite the fact that public health officials in the state of California agree that requiring the immunization is necessary to prevent the spread of the infection, not all parents are on board with the law. Becky Estepp, an employee at Elizabeth Birth Center for Autism Law and Advocacy, and a parent of a California student, told Fox 5 San Diego that she signed a form to release her child from the immunization requirement. Estepp told the news station, “I am a little perplexed at this new law. It looks like they sped up a decision without really looking at what the reason is, why the pertussis was going around last year.”
The state of California does allow parents to opt out of the vaccination requirement due to religious or medical reasons. However, any parent who does not complete the opt out form, or have proof of immunization by this month, will find it very difficult to enroll their children in the California public school system by the time the fall term begins.