For the first time next fall, all California middle- and high-school students will have to prove they’ve been vaccinated against whooping cough. To ensure access, San Francisco’s Department of Public Health is hosting a series of clinics this spring that will provide the vaccine for free. Typically it costs about $70 in a pharmacy.
Under California law, a parent or guardian may have a child exempted from required immunizations if immunization is contrary to their beliefs or if the child has a written exemption from a doctor. Parents can pick up exemption forms at their child’s school.
Ideally, kids should go to their health care providers for the vaccinations, said Lisa Hedden of DPH’s Communicable Disease and Prevention Unit. The free clinics are a safety net for those without access to a provider.
There are an estimated 30,000 students between the ages of 12 and 17 in San Francisco, and the city is trying to get the word out via schools, mail and community organizations.
The first free clinic was held at Roosevelt Middle School on March 20; the next is scheduled for May 14 at John O’Connell High School in the Mission.
The California Department of Public Health also runs a free immunization program, Vaccines for Children, which provides free vaccines for kids who are eligible for Medicaid or are under- or uninsured.
The clinics were planned after California passed a law in September requiring all students to be vaccinated against the illness, also called pertussis. Before the legislation was approved, California was one of only a few states without such a law, according to Hedden.
Although vaccinations are the best defense against the disease, their effects do wear off over time. Many people never get the booster required to maintain immunity — one possible explanation for last year’s whooping cough epidemic in California.
In 2010, the state recorded more than 8,300 cases of pertussis, mostly in infants less than three months of age, who had not yet received the vaccine.
Pertussis is a highly contagious bacterial illness spread by coughs and sneezes. People with pertussis have severe coughing attacks that can last for months. It’s not pleasant — the whooping sound that occurs with the cough is the result of frantic attempts to draw breath. Some patients cough so hard that they black out.
For adults, the illness eventually passes. In infants it can be fatal. Ten infants died during the most recent outbreak. Nine of them were Latino; public health officials have no medical explanation for the racial disparity.
The new vaccine law goes into effect on July 1 and applies to students in all public, private and charter schools. In 2011, all students in grades 7 through 12 will have to show proof of vaccination. But from 2012 on, only students advancing or entering the 7th grade will be required to show proof.
“It’s catch-up,” said Janet Zola, another organizer at the vaccination clinic.
Babies cannot be vaccinated against pertussis until they are six weeks old. In the United States, the vaccines are usually given in a combination vaccine called the DTaP, which protects against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. Children usually require a series of five shots up to the ages of four to six years. A booster TDaP has been available for adolescents and adults since 2005.
By early afternoon at Roosevelt Middle School on March 20, only about 200 shots had been administered. “The biggest challenge is making people aware,” said Hedden.
Another obstacle is finding funds for the vaccines in the face of the state’s massive budget deficit. The organizers brought 3,000 doses with them, paid for by federal funds set aside for emergency response planning.
For more information about the new immunization law and free vaccine clinics, visit www.shotsforschool.org.