By Sammy Roth, Daily News, Los Angeles (MCT) from Education Week | http://bit.ly/MMn79r
Published Online: August 7, 2012 :: Thousands of students in the Los Angeles Unified School District could be turned away from school next week if they haven't been vaccinated for the whooping cough.
A state law that went into effect last year requires all incoming seventh-graders to get a booster shot for the whooping cough vaccine. But with school set to start on Aug. 14, many students have yet to receive the required immunization, despite the school district's efforts to notify parents and the widespread availability of free vaccinations.
Registered nurse Jeanne Owens, a member of LAUSD's immunization team, said that as of Monday more than 8,000 students had not presented their schools with proof of vaccination. Some of those students may have had the required shot but haven't given their schools the proper paperwork. Many haven't gotten the shot.
"We're still standing here going, `Where is everybody?"' Owens said.
Whooping cough is a highly contagious, potentially fatal disease that can cause coughing fits for up to 10 weeks. In 2010, California was one of several states to see outbreaks.
Most children receive the whooping cough immunization at an early age, but the vaccine loses its effectiveness over time, necessitating the booster. Michelle Parra, the director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health's Immunization Program, said it's particularly important for students to be vaccinated because young people are most susceptible to the disease.
Students can also bring the disease home and infect younger siblings, and whooping cough is especially dangerous to infants under the age of three months. In 2010, nine of the 10 Californians to die of whooping cough were infants, four of them in Los Angeles County.
"The tiny little lungs can't take the disease, and essentially they don't get a cough at all," Parra said. "Their lungs stop functioning under the stress of the disease."
LAUSD has been trying since September to notify parents, via phone calls and letters, of the vaccination requirements, and with time running out before classes start, the school district has also hosted free booster shot clinics across the city over the last few weeks. Owens spent several hours on Monday at the Zelzah District Nursing Clinic in Reseda, administering about 20 shots.
Nancy Hernandez, whose son Eddie Garcia is a student at Burton Elementary in Panorama City, said she skipped work to take him to the free clinic. She speculated that many parents haven't read the school district's letters, and that others simply haven't been able to miss work to take their kids to get vaccinated.
"They have to do it," Hernandez said. "It's our kids. It's their health."
Last year, the state Legislature approved a 30-day extension to the immunization law, giving parents of students in grades 7-12 through the first month of the school year to get their children vaccinated.
But there isn't likely to be a similar extension this year. State Assemblyman Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, who has sponsored a bill that would make it harder for parents to opt their children out of immunizations, said that legislators only passed an extension last year because the requirement was brand-new.
"If you haven't gotten the vaccinations already, then you need to go ahead and get them over the summer," Pan said.
In 2010, Los Angeles County saw 1,303 cases of whooping cough, according to the California Department of Public Health. It's become much less of a problem since then - there were 607 cases in 2011, and only 60 cases between January 1 and July 27 of this year. But the disease is known to wax and wane, and it's still important that students get vaccinated, Parra said.
"There really are 8,000 names on that list," Owens said. "And I've been trying to call them all, one by one."