Unvaccinated students could be barred from school for at least three weeks if an outbreak of whooping cough occurs, according to city health officials.
Whooping cough is a highly contagious respiratory tract infection, which often resembles a common cold. Cases of whooping cough, or pertussis, are increasing nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The increase in California is so dramatic that the CDC is calling it an epidemic.
“Last year, we had some classrooms where 40 percent of kids were not vaccinated,” said Dr. Susan Fernyak, director of communicable disease control and prevention for the San Francisco Health Department. “If it’s just one or two kids, it’s not a concern, but 40 percent is a lot.”
In San Francisco, 50 cases of the disease have already been reported this year, according to Fernyak, and she expects those numbers to increase seven fold by the end of the year. Last year, only 45 cases were identified.
Dr. Shannon Thyne, medical director of San Francisco General Hospital’s Children’s Health Center, said the reason for the increase is largely because of lack of education about immunization, not necessarily the choice to not get vaccinated.
“It’s more a lack of it being on the radar,” she said. “Many are getting the series of shots as an infant, but when it comes around to getting a booster at 9 years old, it’s not happening.”
Because of a parent’s right to choose whether to vaccinate a child, Fernyak said, the Health Department cannot restrict children who are not protected from attending school. However, if an outbreak occurs and students are at risk, the department can restrict students for fear of the disease spreading.
Fernyak said students could miss a minimum of three weeks because that’s the length of incubation needed to ward off infection.
San Francisco Unified School District spokeswoman Gentle Blythe said the district is preparing to send letters to parents and students about the importance of immunization.
“It has always been our advice to families that if a child is sick with anything that is contagious to not have their child in school,” she said.
Whooping cough cases reported
1,337 statewide: January 2010 to June 2010
258 statewide: January 2009 to June 2009
50 in SF: January 2010 to Aug. 10, 2010
45 in SF: 2009
7 infant deaths: 2010
Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, San Francisco Department of Public Health