After hundreds of Beaufort County seventh-graders failed to meet a new vaccine requirement this past fall, many more students are complying this year, a school nurse says.
Nonetheless, not enough have received their shots, Meg Hendy said.
Only about half of the district's rising seventh-graders had submitted proof by June that they received a required booster shot for tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough, according to Hendy, Bluffton Middle School's nurse.
Although that is marked improvement over a compliance rate of about 10 percent in July 2013, Hendy said, students have less than a month to submit proof of the shot before school starts Aug. 18.
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"I know that all the schools are in much better shape this year than they were last year, but we still are not at 100 percent compliance," Hendy said. "Parents need to understand how truly important this is, because the whooping cough outbreaks in other parts of the state could come here in a heart beat."
All three of the infections targeted by the vaccine -- known as Tdap -- are dangerous, according to Dr. Riyadh Muhammad, a pediatrician and medical consultant for the state's Department of Health and Environmental Control. But whooping cough, or pertussis, is the disease DHEC most hopes to prevent, she said.
Several confirmed cases of the contagious respiratory illness popped up in Upstate schools in September, according to the health department.
Most infants get the Tdap vaccination, Muhammad has said, but its protection fades as children age.
A new regulation was enacted last year requiring all South Carolina seventh-graders to have the booster vaccination before returning to school.
If students have not produced the proper immunization forms before school begins in August, they will not be allowed to attend school until they submit proof, according to the rule.
Last year, Beaufort County public schools -- along with other districts in South Carolina -- had to request a 30-day extension because hundreds of students would have been sent home, district spokesman Jim Foster has said.
The district plans to enforce its August deadline this year and hopes it won't need to request a similar extension, head of student services Gregory McCord said.
"If we see large numbers, we definitely will ask for an extension because we always want the kids in school, but not if it's a safety concern to other students," he said. "But I feel pretty comfortable that we won't experience this year what we experienced last year."
To achieve better compliance this year, the schools have continued to send reminders home to students through emails, newsletters and phone calls.
DHEC also held vaccination clinics in the schools in spring for sixth-graders, to help them comply with the regulation. Hendy said about 70 students signed up for the clinic at Bluffton Middle, but more could have taken advantage of it.
Hendy said most local pediatricians are now aware of the rule and are giving students the booster shot during regular checkups and physicals. Many of the district's rising fifth- and sixth-graders have already begun to turn in their forms for the vaccination, she said.
Parents can call school nurses the week before classes begin to confirm that the school has received the necessary verification.
"The whole state was in a bit of a flux over this last year, but we are getting there," Hendy said. "I think parents have started to heed our warnings that if they don't have it, the students can't come to school."
Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.