While S.C. childhood immunizations have dropped and cases of whooping cough recently spiked in the state, Beaufort County health officials say area parents have done well to ensure children are vaccinated against the potentially fatal disease.
Nonetheless, Beaufort County school nurses say they're working diligently to inform parents of new state immunization requirements that begin in fall.
Starting in August, the state will require all seventh-graders -- current rising sixth-graders -- to prove they received a vaccine for pertussis, which also includes immunizations for tetanus and diphtheria.
Kids who haven't had a Tdap booster shot may not be allowed to attend school.
Pertussis, more commonly known as whooping cough, is a highly contagious, potentially fatal respiratory disease that is most severe in infants. It can prevent an infant from breathing or eating and can cause brain damage, pneumonia and other serious conditions, according to state and federal health officials.
The disease often is transmitted to infants from adolescents and adults who carry it, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control's immunization website.
"I don't know of any (Bluffton school) with an alarming number of whooping cough," said Meg Hendy, a registered nurse at Bluffton Middle School. "We're trying to nip it in the bud before it becomes a problem. And fortunately, it has not been a problem for us."
Area pediatricians and other school nurses say they've actually seen an increase in immunizations within the last year.
"Parents are reacting very well," said Adea Humphries, nurse at Beaufort Middle School. "I'm already seeing an increase in immunization forms from parents."
Legislators, however, say they are concerned about statewide falling vaccination rates and are moving to make mandatory what is now a voluntary immunization-reporting system for health care providers.
Proponents say doing so will give the state more reliable data about how many children are getting immunizations and help doctors diagnose patients more accurately and quickly.
From 1999 to 2002, South Carolina had between 26 and 62 reported cases a year, but saw more than 400 cases in 2005 and 2010, prompting state health officials to issue several warnings.
The Committee on Children also recently reported South Carolina's childhood immunization rate is declining, while the national average is rising.
DHEC spokesman Jim Beasley contends "by and large, children in S.C. have very good coverage." Beasley, though, said state surveillance data "cannot be used at this time" to show whether there is a decrease in immunizations or that it's linked to an increase in whooping cough.
"We've seen, since July 2012, 18,000 cases of whooping cough nationwide reported to the CDC, which is twice as much as the previous year," said Dr. Eric Peltz with Palmetto Pediatrics of the Lowcountry on Hilton Head and in Okatie.
"There is no doubt there is an increase in the numbers. But for the most part, parents in southern Beaufort County have been receptive to the vaccine, which is good, but there is still a small contingent of parents who refuse to get their child vaccinated."
While mandatory reporting will help the state get a better idea of statewide immunization numbers, "getting information out there to let parents know how serious a disease pertussis is," is the best way to improve vaccination rates, Peltz said.
The (Columbia) State newspaper contributed to this report.
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom