Most Beaufort County rising seventh-graders do not have a required booster shot for tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough, according to a school nurse.
A new regulation requires all South Carolina seventh-graders to have the booster before returning to school in August, but Bluffton Middle School lead nurse Meg Hendy suspects most seventh-graders at her school -- and around the Beaufort County School District -- aren't current on the vaccination, known as Tdap.
"We have less than 10 percent compliance right now for Bluffton Middle School, and I can't imagine it's much different across Beaufort County," Hendy said. "But it's imperative that they get this done."
The state is conducting free vaccine clinics in the coming weeks, including in Beaufort and Jasper counties, to make it easier for parents to get their children vaccinated. Hendy said students also can go to their pediatrician or the local health department to get the booster.
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All seventh-graders need proof of Tdap booster shots before beginning school in August. Public-school students in Beaufort and Jasper counties return Aug. 19.
Hendy said that of the 524 rising seventh-graders at Bluffton Middle, she has received proof of vaccination from only 31. She said the school has sent notices with report cards, announced the new rule at meetings and on its website, and sent out fliers to notify people of the new regulation.
It's possible a few students have received their booster and have not notified her, Hendy said. However, she hasn't recived notification of the boosters from the vast majority of the students or their parents.
Most infants get the Tdap vaccination, but its protection fades as the children age, said Dr. Riyadh Muhammad, pediatrician and medical consultant for DHEC.
He added that South Carolina lags far below the national average in the rate of adolescents who have had the booster shot. According to the 2011 national immunization survey, only 59.4 percent of teens ages 13 to 17 have had the booster shot in South Carolina, compared to 78.2 percent nationally.
Applying the same rate to the local population, that means more than 700 of the 1,700 Beaufort County seventh-graders probably need the booster, according to DHEC.
All three of these infections are dangerous, but Muhammad said whooping cough, or pertussis, is the disease DHEC most hopes to prevent.
"Whooping cough is very serious, incredibly contagious and especially dangerous for infants and children under 5," Muhammad said.
There were 230 cases of whooping cough reported across South Carolina last year, the majority in patients ages 10 to 17, Muhammad said. That is a stark increase from 2011, when only 141 cases were reported.
Through June, 101 cases of whooping cough have been reported this year.
"We are having an above-average year this year compared to past years, and it's looking concerning at this point," Muhammad said. "The more people we can get covered with the booster shot, hopefully we can bring these numbers down."
DHEC estimates that 35,760 of the 60,200 students entering seventh grade have up-to-date Tdap protection because they've been given booster shots in recent years. That means about 24,440 rising seventh-graders across the state still need the shots before school starts.
The booster also is recommended for pregnant women and people who spend time around children younger than a year old, and those groups can also get free vaccines at the DHEC clinics.
Joey Holleman of The (Columbia) State contributed to this report.
Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.