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March 8, 2013

SC targets seventh graders for whooping cough vaccine

Starting next school year, SC will require all rising seventh graders prove they have received a vaccine for pertussis, or whooping cough, on or after their seventh birthday.

A drop in S.C. childhood immunizations and a recent spike in cases of whooping cough statewide – a potentially fatal disease – has public health officials and lawmakers working to ensure children are vaccinated against that disease.

Starting in the fall, the state will require all rising seventh graders prove they have received a vaccine for pertussis, or whooping cough, on or after their seventh birthday. The vaccine also includes immunizations for tetanus and diphtheria.

Whooping cough is a highly contagious, potentially fatal respiratory disease that is most severe in infants. It can prevent an infant from being able to breathe or eat, and cause brain damage, pneumonia and other serious conditions.

The disease often is transmitted to infants from adolescents and adults who are carrying it, said Leanne Bailey, director of S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s immunization division. Ensuring adolescents are immunized is an effort to curb future cases, especially among infants, Bailey said.

Legislators are concerned about falling vaccination rates.

“If we stay on this course, some diseases we thought were near eradication could resurface,” said state Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, a member of the Joint Citizens and Legislative Committee on Children, made up of legislators, citizens, and public health and education officials.

Legislators are moving to make mandatory an immunization-reporting system that health care providers now participate in on a voluntary basis. When the program launches, the state will have more reliable data about how many children are getting immunizations, Bailey said.

The registry also will help doctors diagnose patients more accurately and quickly, said Anna-Kathryn Rye, director of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at the University of South Carolina. Asking parents about their children’s vaccine status is not always accurate because, “most of the time, parents have no idea,” she said.

More cases recently

Since 1998, South Carolina has seen increases in the number of reported cases of whooping cough, including spikes in 2005 and 2010, according to the state health department.

From 1999 to 2002, the state had between 26 and 62 reported cases a year. In 2005, however, the state had 413 cases reported, and in 2010, there were 404 cases reported.

In 2010, state health officials issued several warnings about rising cases of whooping cough, especially among infants.

There were 81 cases of whooping cough reported in the first 20 weeks of 2010, doubling the number of cases reported in each of the three years prior, the state health department reported in June of that year. The number of cases reported crested the epidemic threshold in six of those weeks. In March 2010, two infants were hospitalized in Aiken County alone.

In 2011, whooping cough cases reported dropped to 143.

The move to protect the public against whooping cough stems, in part, from declining rates in immunizations for children 2 years or younger in the state.

The Committee on Children recently reported South Carolina’s childhood immunization rate is declining while the national average is rising.

In 2011, 73.3 percent of children nationally had received all their recommended immunizations, up from 68.4 percent in 2008 and 63.6 percent in 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, from 2008 to 2009, South Carolina’s childhood immunization rate fell to 59.7 percent from 70.6 percent. In 2010 – the same year that pertussis cases in the state spiked – the state immunization rate jumped to 73.6, above the national average, but the next year it fell to 69.8 percent, below the national average.

For every dollar spent on immunizations – preventing an estimated 600,000 illnesses and 1,300 deaths annually in the state – about $10 is saved in the cost of treating disease, the committee reported.

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