Back-to-school season seems to coincide with back-to-cold-and-flu season. It doesn't take long for sniffles and coughs to be heard in classrooms where airborne bacteria tend to bounce around.
This year, especially, parents should be on the lookout for pertussis, better known as whooping cough. The highly contagious disease has been on the rise for a decade, and Illinois ranks among the top five states with the highest rates of infection.
And then there's this disconcerting fact: Most of the whooping cough cases have involved kids who were vaccinated on schedule. New research indicates that the efficacy of the vaccines is wearing off faster than expected, and the chance of contracting the disease leaps by about 42 percent each a year after a preschool child's last booster.
The Associated Press reported last week that a study by the Kaiser Permanente Vaccine Research Center found that protection from the five shots given to children before age 6 might not last until the next recommended booster, typically given at 11 or 12 years old. Indeed, a disproportionate number of whooping cough patients have been children ages 7 to 10.
That means even a new Illinois law requiring sixth- and ninth-graders to show proof they received a booster is not likely to stop the upward trend.
The vaccine was changed in the late 1990s to ease side effects, and several years of data were needed before researchers could link the increased infection rates to the new version.
So the simple solution, it seems, would be to move up the booster age or strengthen the vaccine. But officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which makes recommendations for doctors, say at this point there is talk but no plan for a solution, the AP reported.
It's obvious a change is needed. But until then, what are parents to do?
They can start by ensuring children get the shots. The vaccine may be falling short, but if an inoculated child does contract whooping cough, he or she is likely to have a milder case, experts say. Adults also should check with their doctors about getting boosters, especially parents, pregnant women, grandparents and others who may care for young children.
Parents should know the signs. Symptoms resemble those of a common cold, but pertussis causes persistent coughing often with a "whooping" sound between the coughs. The Mayo Clinic suggests calling a doctor if the coughing causes a child to vomit, turn blue or gasp for breath. Babies are especially at risk.
If there's any suspicion of whooping cough, children -- and adults for that matter -- should stay home. Why risk spraying germ-infested droplets through public air? It's just not responsible.
As of Aug. 1, the state health department recorded 1,200 cases of pertussis this year. In 2011, 1,509 were tallied for the entire year. That was a 40 percent jump from 2010. It'll take some quick and smart action at the policy level and on the homefront to reverse this trend.