It began with a cough. And then the coughing wouldn’t stop.
“We would cough, cough, cough for like five minutes straight,” said Emily Tobita, 18, of the Richmond district. “At the end of really bad fits, we’d end up throwing up.”
Emily and her twin brother, Zak, had pertussis, a once-uncommon childhood illness that has made a resurgence in recent years. The potentially fatal disease is better known as whooping cough for the gasping sound that sufferers make after each violent coughing session.
“We don’t recommend it to anyone,” said Emily, a recent Washington High School graduate who was sick for about three months this year.
California reported more than 9,000 cases of pertussis last year, the most since 1947, according to the state’s Department of Public Health. More than 800 people were hospitalized, and 10 infants died.
So far this year, the state has reported nearly 2,000 cases.
“Today’s levels are nowhere near where they were in the early part of the last century,” said Andrew Resignato, director of the San Francisco Immunization Coalition. “But when kids are dying and you have 800 hospitalizations, that’s a lot.”
Resignato, along with school and public health officials, has been working to inform parents about a new California law that requires students in grades 7 through 12 to have a pertussis booster shot. Known as Tdap, the vaccine also immunizes against diphtheria and tetanus.
According to the San Francisco Unified School District, only 22 percent of Seventh- through 12th-grade students currently have booster shot records on file at their school.
Without the records, they will not be allowed to begin classes.
Although younger children are already required to get the vaccine, Resignato said, the immunity wears off by the time a child reaches middle school.
The loss of immunity is partly responsible for the soaring number of cases. But also to blame, Resignato said, are parents who refuse to vaccinate their children because of the mistaken belief that vaccines can cause autism or other disorders.
“It’s really hard to get rid of,” said Resignato about the myth. “We still need to get the message out that vaccines, for the most part, are safe.”
Emily Tobita was happy to help spread that message.
“I really wouldn’t want anyone to get this,” she said.
There will be a free Tdap vaccination clinic on Aug. 6 from 1 to 4 p.m. at the French American International School, 151 Oak St, San Francisco.
Students must come with a parent or guardian or a signed parental consent form and a nonguardian adult. They must bring their vaccination records.
Who should get the pertussis booster?
- Students entering Seventh through 12th grade, unless their parents get an exception for medical reasons or personal beliefs
- Pregnant women
- Anyone caring for or living with infants, the group most likely to die from pertussis