California Mulls Mandatory Shot for Whooping Cough

California Mulls Mandatory Shot for Whooping Cough

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SAN FRANCISCO - The recent whooping cough epidemic in California, the worst in 50 years, has added momentum to a bill proposing to make the booster vaccine for the disease mandatory for middle-school children before starting seventh grade.

The series of whooping cough injections given to a baby by six months of age is effective only for 10 years. The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) notes that a booster vaccine is required to ensure continued protection from this highly contagious disease.

Fresno Assemblyman Juan Arambula introduced a bill in February that proposes to add the whooping cough booster vaccine to the state’s list of mandatory injections for adolescent children.

“Research shows that adolescents between ages 11 and 18 years are active vectors that carry the disease to their families and infant siblings, who are most vulnerable when exposed to this disease,” said Joseph Devlin, Arambula's legislative director in Sacramento.

“At present, the CDPH recommends all adolescents in this age group to get a booster shot for whooping cough,” Devlin noted. “But no one is strictly enforcing this recommendation. Only 40 to 50 percent of adolescents get the booster shot now. That is why it is important to make it part of the mandatory vaccination list for adolescents.”

A similar bill proposed by Arambula was defeated two years ago because of the extra cost involved.

“The added cost of vaccinating students before they get into seventh grade is estimated to be $400,000 per annum. But the State of California does not have to pay because funding will come from the federal Vaccines for Children Program and private insurance,” Devlin said.

Pertussis, the scientific name for whooping cough, is highly contagious. All told, 910 cases have been confirmed as of June 15, with 600 more under investigation, according to the California Department of Public Health. There has been a four-fold increase in the disease from the same period last year, when 219 incidents were found. Five infants — all under three months of age and all Latinos— have died from the disease this year.

Infants under six months of age are the most vulnerable group to whooping cough since they are not immunized or are only partly immunized against the disease. The required series of injections begin at two months and are completed at six months of age.

It is reported that lack of information and low numbers of inoculations in agricultural regions in the state’s Central Valley — home to many Latino farm workers — might be to blame for the high incidence in that community. Since 1998, more than 80 percent of the infants in California who have died from whooping cough were Latino.

“Cases tend to peak every two to five years,” said CDPH Director Dr. Mark Horton. In 2005, California recorded over 3,000 cases and eight deaths. You are vulnerable to contract the illness again even if you have had it once before,” he said.

Horton noted that it was the only disease that remains widespread in California, despite high levels of vaccination in early childhood.

“At least 80 to 90 percent of the population needs to get the booster shot when they are adolescents before we can safely prevent a whooping cough epidemic from breaking out from time to time. Right now we are urging parents, family members and caregivers of infants to get a booster shot immediately to curtail infant deaths to the current epidemic,” he said.