New California Law Mandates Whooping Cough Booster Shot for Teens

Filed under: In The News, Health & Safety: Tweens, Health & Safety: Teens

whooping cough california

Come September, teens won't be allowed in public or private schools without proof of a whooping cough booster shot. Credit: Getty


If you live in California, you'll need to add one more thing to your back-to-school to-do list.

A new law effective this year says all children in California entering grades seven through 12 in the state's public and private schools must submit proof they've received a booster shot for whooping cough, also known as pertussis, the Orange County Register reports.

Passed in September 2010 by the California Legislature, the law came in response to the worst outbreak of the preventable disease in generations. More than 7,800 cases of whooping cough were reported in the state in 2010, the most since 1947. In addition, 10 infants died of the disease last year -- all of them younger than 3 months and before they received their full round of immunizations, according to the newspaper.

Whooping cough produces violent coughing spasms that leave the infected person gasping for breath, producing the characteristic "whoop" sound. It is a deadly disease in infants, though symptoms can be milder in older children and adults. Yet, even they can be quite sick for weeks or months and can actually suffer broken ribs from the coughing spells, Dr. Eileen Yamada, a pediatrician and public health medical officer with California's immunization branch, tells the Register.

Young infants can be treated with antibiotics if whooping cough is diagnosed early enough. However, after a certain point, an infected child can only be prevented from transmitting the disease to others -- little can be done to actually help the patient, Dr. Terence Chu, a pediatrician from Lake Forest, Calif., tells the newspaper.

Pertussis vaccines are usually given to children at 2, 4 and 6 months of age, with another dose between 15 and 18 months and a booster shot before they enter kindergarten at 4 to 6 years. But because immunity to the disease wears off over time, a new booster shot called Tdap was developed in 2005 for adolescents and adults, which is effective for about 10 years, the Register reports.

Health officials advise that parents receive the Tdap booster, along with other primary caregivers or those who spend a lot of time around a baby, such as siblings or grandparents.

The new law is targeting children in seventh to 12th grade because it has likely been years since their last pertussis shot, as the booster given to teens before 2005 only protected against diptheria and tetanus. Starting with the 2012-13 school year, only incoming seventh graders will need to provide proof of vaccination, the Register reports.

But even with the new law in place, some families will decline to have their children vaccinated, choosing instead to file a personal-belief exemption (PBE) form with the school or submit a doctor's letter saying the booster "is not indicated" for their child, which forces schools to waive the requirement, the newspaper reports.

PBE waivers have become much more common in California, with 10,280 granted for kindergartners in the state in fall 2009, compared to 2,719 in 1990.

California health officials are urging parents to have their children vaccinated now, instead of waiting until the summer, to avoid a possible rush at pediatricians' offices right before school starts.

"It's a dangerous thing that we see happening, for whatever reason -- whether it's the hassle factor or a concern about vaccines," Orange County Chief Medical Officer Dr. Nancy Bowen tells the Register. "This vaccine is very safe, and it's very unusual to have any problems with it."

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