Whooping Cough Booster Required for 6th-Graders

John Andrzejewski, 11, is one of many students who are required to get a whooping cough booster before the school year begins.
John Andrzejewski, 11, is one of many students who are required to get a whooping cough booster before the school year begins. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 24, 2006

Virginia students starting sixth grade this year must receive a new booster vaccine to protect against whooping cough, a highly contagious respiratory disease characterized by a persistent, sometimes wrenching cough.

The General Assembly added the Tdap vaccine, which combines protection against whooping cough with a standard booster against tetanus and diphtheria, to the list of immunizations required for schoolchildren. The law was sparked by concerns over an increase nationwide in the number of cases of whooping cough, also known as pertussis.

Jim Farrell, director of the Virginia Department of Health's Division of Immunization, said a pertussis vaccine, combined with tetanus and diphtheria inoculations, has been standard for infants for decades. But health officials have found that the protection against whooping cough wore off.

"The middle-schoolers are losing the protection they had," Farrell said. "They had received these vaccinations, but they did that in infancy, and that protection is waning."

In 2004, for example, several Fairfax County students contracted whooping cough, which is usually relatively mild in older children and adults but sometimes serious and even life-threatening for infants. The cases prompted Fairfax health officials to warn high school principals to be on the lookout for anyone with symptoms.

Statewide, 400 cases of whooping cough were reported in 2004, and 363 were reported last year, according to the Virginia Department of Health. This year, 133 cases have been reported.

In the past, the pertussis vaccine was available only for infants and young children. Last year, the new Tdap vaccine, appropriate for adolescents, was approved nationwide, Farrell said. Students can get the vaccinations from their family physicians. Local health departments also are offering the shot free to students entering sixth grade, state officials said.

Loudoun County officials have offered "special immunization Saturdays" in August at the Shenandoah Health Clinic in Leesburg. Cathy Sturgeon, coordinator of student health services for the Loudoun public schools, said the district sent letters home with all fifth-grade students at the end of the school year explaining the new requirement.

Sturgeon recommends that children have a good breakfast before coming to the clinic. "A lot of kids are kind of squeamish about getting injections, and we don't want them fainting," she said.

Farrell said the new immunization will help prevent the spread of the illness to babies.

State health officials spread the word about the requirement to doctors across Virginia and notified the Medical Society of Virginia and other groups. School districts also have been working to inform parents.

Students who haven't been vaccinated by the first day of school will be enrolled on the condition that they receive the booster soon.

Children entering sixth grade who have had a tetanus shot within the past five years are exempt from the requirement, health officials said. Farrell said that's because a second dose within a few years can cause adverse reactions, including swelling or soreness.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company