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Have you gotten your shot yet?

The number of whooping cough cases has increased dramatically in California.

Did you know that you need to get a shot or else you can’t go to school this fall? A new state law requires seventh through 12th graders to get a booster shot to protect them from whooping cough. I got my shot a few months ago when my doctor told me to come in to get the whooping cough booster. It took only a few seconds for my doctor to put the needle in my shoulder and take it out. It didn’t hurt that much. It felt like a pinch.

I was curious about the new law so I interviewed Dr. Alvin Nelson El Amin from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. He told me that there’s an epidemic of whooping cough going around right now. Already 10 infants have died of this disease in California. Only 50 percent of teens have gotten the whooping cough vaccine. Since it’s so dangerous to infants it was surprising that so many people haven’t gotten the vaccine. I’m glad I got the shot so I can go to school without worrying that I’ll get the virus and spread it to others. It seems horrible to be coughing for a minute straight. Since whooping cough lasts for several weeks, I don’t want to miss school and have to make up all that homework.

Below are my answers to common questions about the whooping cough requirement based on my interview with Dr. Nelson El Amin and information from the public health department.

L.A. Youth: What is the new whooping cough requirement?
Dr. Alvin Nelson El Amin: Students entering grades seven through 12 in both public and private schools need to have a booster shot to protect against whooping cough, also known as pertussis. “Get it done as soon as possible,” said Dr. Nelson El Amin, the medical director of the county’s immunization program.

Why was the law passed?
In 2010, California had more cases of pertussis reported than in any year since 1947, including 10 deaths, all infants. There were 922 cases in Los Angeles County, more than five times as many as in 2009. Even though it was always recommended that pre-teens and teens be given this booster shot, only a little more than 50 percent have received the vaccine. Since we’re having an epidemic, it needs to get much higher than 50 percent to prevent further cases. Whooping cough “can be devastating in a school setting” because of all the close contact, Dr. Nelson El Amin said. It’s very contagious. Someone who is in the same classroom for an hour with someone who has whooping cough is more likely to get it if they’re not immunized.

What is whooping cough?
It’s an intense cough that can last for a minute. You first get cold-like symptoms, like a runny nose, stuffy nose and sneezing. Then you start coughing, and then develop the intense cough. Since you don’t get a lot of air in your lungs, when you finish coughing you take a deep breath and make a whooping sound. That’s where the name comes from. You may vomit, and the violent coughing can lead to rib fractures and passing out. It can last four to eight weeks, which means students staying out of school for a long period of time. It can also be deadly for infants.

What is the name of the shot?
It’s called Tdap. It’s a booster vaccine for three diseases: tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis. You only need one dose, you don’t need it every year.

What’s the difference between a vaccine and a booster shot?
A booster shot is the same thing as a vaccine. It’s called a booster because it’s boosting the immunization from the vaccine that you got as a child. Children get vaccinated for whooping cough as an infant and they get vaccinated again before starting school. The protection starts wearing off at 11 to 12 years of age so they need to get it again.

Why is the vaccination required only for seventh to 12th graders? Isn’t everyone vulnerable?
The whooping cough vaccine is recommended for adults, especially if they’re going to be around children. The 10 infants who died from whooping cough probably got it from a sibling or mothers who weren’t protected.

What does a student need to do after getting the vaccine?
Because we are in an epidemic, the rules are stricter. They need to bring paperwork to school that specifies that they have received the Tdap vaccine. They will be sent home if they show up to school and don’t have proof.

Can students choose not to get the vaccine?
Yes, if they have a note from their doctor that says they’re allergic to the vaccine or for some other medical reason. Also, in California we have the personal beliefs exemption for religious reasons. Schools have copies of the form but parents shouldn’t use it for convenience. A lot of times parents don’t know they’re putting their child and school at risk by not getting them vaccinated.

Where can we get the vaccine?
Your doctor should have them. For people without health insurance, there are free or low-cost health clinics. Call 211 or go to www.publichealth.lacounty.gov/ip to find a clinic near you. Call first to make an appointment.

Besides the vaccine, what else can students do to prevent getting whooping cough?
Ask people to cover their cough because you don’t know what they have. Learn the cough etiquette, which is cover your cough inside your elbow. Stay home if you have a bad cough. Wash your hands often.