SPARTANBURG, SC — As many as 192 seventh graders in Spartanburg County are being told they can't return to school until they get a required vaccination.
The vaccination, known as TDAP, protects against tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough. In February, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control mandated that all seventh graders receive the vaccine before the start of school. School officials say students were given an additional 30 days.
“If a student does not have their vaccinations up to date, they can be asked to stay at home until they are up to date,” said Dr. Shawn Foster, director of student and administrative services for Spartanburg District 7.
District 7, as of Friday, reports that 135 students still don't have the vaccine. The Herald-Journal found that 17 seventh-graders in district 6, seven students from district 3, 29 from district 2, two from district 5, and two from district 1 don't have proof of the vaccine. All of the seventh graders in district 4 have the vaccine, according to a district 4 spokesperson.
DHEC spokesman Jim Beasley said the goal of the new vaccine requirement is not to keep children out of school, but rather to take every step available to assist families in protecting their children and the health of the community.
“This change was recommended by the (Centers for Disease Control) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practice (ACIP) and took several years of hard work by DHEC and our partners to develop and implement this new requirement that will no doubt save many lives in the years to come,” he said.
Beasley said DHEC has spent the past 18 months working with schools across the state to educate parents and preteens about the new school-aged immunization requirement. He said more than 100,000 educational brochures, flyers, emails, letters and phone calls have gone out to families explaining the new school rule and the importance of protecting students from whooping cough.
But still, some parents have yet to comply, and Dr. Debbie Greenhouse, president of the South Carolina Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said there is really no excuse.
“There should not be any financial barriers,” she said. “If a child's insurance does not cover it, and they qualify for Medicaid, Medicaid will cover it. If they do not qualify for Medicaid, then the state vaccine program (VFC), which acts as a safety net, would cover it.”
Whooping cough causes uncontrollable, violent coughing which often makes it hard to breathe. After fits of coughing, someone with whooping cough often needs to take deep breaths, which result in a “whooping” sound. It most commonly affects infants and young children and can be fatal, especially in babies less than 1 year old.
People with whooping cough usually spread the disease by coughing or sneezing while in close contact with others, who then breathe in the bacteria that cause the disease, according to the CDC.
Greenhouse said the disease has been a serious problem in South Carolina, and the state's TDAP vaccination requirements were previously not up to par with other states.
“Our rates of the TDAP vaccine compared to the rest of the country are significantly lower. We are hoping that by having this mandate, we are able to get our rates more in line with the rest of the nation,” she said.
But the vaccine is not 100 percent effective, and that is why it's so important for schools to ensure everyone has it done, said Greenhouse.
“The more children in a school who are not immunized, the more cases you will see among children who are immunized.”
District 5 superintendent Dr. Scott Turner said the decision to keep students who have not been vaccinated out of school is not only meant to protect them, but to protect every other student and staff member as well.”
“As a district that educates nearly 8,000 students, we have an obligation and duty to keep every one of them safe,” he said.
The TDAP vaccine is offered at DHEC's Spartanburg County Health Department. Walk-ins are accepted, but appointments are encouraged. The vaccine costs $13.