Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) began offering free whooping cough vaccines Monday to lines of parents and children in an effort to inoculate students in seventh through 12th grades before the school year begins.
Over ten clinics, at least one in each district, will be available through Sept. 2 to ensure all students comply with the new requirement, which went into effect July 1.
Because schools in the LAUSD do not have a uniform start date, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation Monday to extend the deadline 30 days beyond the first day of school.
Students at year-round institutions, which began classes July 5, have been barred from attending school if they could not provide required proof of vaccination.
"We don't want students to be absent, but we have to follow the law," said Dee Apodaca, director of nursing services at LAUSD.
About 80 percent of students at Huntington Park High School did not have their shots by the time school started in July, and school officials said they have been working extended hours and pulling nurses off their vacations to process the paperwork.
When the law became enforceable, half of the students affected were deemed not in compliance with the law. Now, Apodaca said, most schools that have already begun instruction are in full compliance or have few students left to inoculate, many of whom are waiting on the compensated clinics.
Although the LAUSD is not in the greatest financial shape following deep budget cuts, federal funding from the Vaccines for Children program is funding the pro-bono operations, Apodaca said.
The school district has not come out unscathed, however. Dee said nurses sent home for the summer have been called back on duty, costing the district money they do not have.
The new vaccine requirement comes after a particularly brutal bout with the upper respiratory infection in 2010. Last year, California saw the highest number of reported cases in 63 years: 9,120, or 23.3 per 100,000.
According to a report by the LA County Department of Public Health, the number of reported cases of whooping cough was seven times greater by August 2010 then during the same period the year before.
Whooping cough, or pertussis, is an air-borne bacterial disease, the symptoms of which include uncontrollable, violent coughing.
The highly contagious infection can last six weeks and is usually treated with antibiotics, although complications, such as pneumonia, can occur, especially in infants.
Last year, four infants died from whooping cough in Los Angeles County from whooping cough, said a spokeswoman for the county department of public health. So far this year there have been no reported deaths from the infection.
The last time a new vaccine was added to the list of required shots for children entering school was in 2001 when the chickenpox vaccine became mandatory.
Legislators, not public health officials, have the power to create vaccine requirements, said Sandra Jo Hammer, nurse consultant with the state health department immunization branch.
The latest requirement was passed in Sept. 2010 to be implemented in July 2011, an unusually rapid process.
"The urgency was in response to a considered public health threat," Hammer said.
While it is less common to require older students be vaccinated, immunity to whooping cough gradually decreases whether a person has had the vaccine or the virus so re-vaccination is necessary, said Kathy Harriman, epidemiologist for the California Department of Public Health.
Pertussis is characteristically cyclical, she added. The bacteria show peaks and valleys in its strength.
California's last spike in the virus was in 2005 when 3,000 cases were reported. The 2010 peak had 9,000 cases.
"It is hard to say why, but pertussis has been increasing in general since the 1990s," Harriman said.
She attributed the climb in figures to a change in vaccine type from whole-cellular to acelluar, and better diagnosing tools.
Harriman said parents should be aware that whooping cough has not been eliminated, and there is "still a lot of pertussis out there."
Since the vaccine currently used has only been around since 2005, health officials are still unsure how often people should update their shots, but the reason behind the plea extends beyond the patient.
"We're asking the public to (get vaccinated) to protect those most vulnerable," she said. "For older children, it's a very miserable illness, but it's much more fatal for young infants."
For a list of free vaccine clinics throughout Los Angeles County, click here.