Mid-Columbia health officials are bracing for a possible spike in cases of whooping cough now that school is back in session.
The number of cases of whooping cough, also known as pertussis, held steady over the summer, said Amy Person, heath district officer of the Benton Franklin Health District.
"School kids are a big reservoir of infection," she said.
More children are being immunized now that state law makes it more difficult for parents to avoid taking their children to get shots. And health and school authorities have campaigned about the importance of students getting immunized.
But immunization rates still are below state goals, and school districts are hesitant to crack down too hard on families who haven't gotten their student to a doctor yet.
About 3,800 pertussis cases have been reported in Washington as of Aug. 25, and the number of cases being reported weekly has been above the epidemic threshold since January.
Almost 100 of those cases have been reported in Benton and Franklin counties, with another 46 cases reported in Walla Walla County.
Pertussis can affect any age group but is the most dangerous for the very young. Person said no deaths from the illness have been reported in Benton and Franklin counties, largely because of increased awareness about the illness and early treatment.
Most children are inoculated against the disease and others when they receive immunizations when they are very young. However, the vaccine wears off over time, requiring a booster shot as early as age 11.
About 75 percent of teenagers are reported to have recently been vaccinated against pertussis. That's below the state goal of 80 percent, and children aged 10 to 18 account for about 40 percent of the state's pertussis cases this year.
"Immunizing teens is as important as immunizing young children -- it protects the teens and everyone around them, especially babies who are too young for vaccination," said Mary Selecky, Washington Secretary of Health, in a news release.
School districts often require students to be up-to-date on a number of vaccinations besides pertussis, including diphtheria, tetanus, polio, hepatitis B, measles, mumps, rubella and chicken pox, before attending school.
Lorraine Cooper, spokeswoman for the Kennewick School District, said more students are showing up immunized, thanks to the state law that requires parents to visit a doctor to discuss immunizations before they can opt out their child out of them for religious or health reasons.
School districts also are promoting the need for immunizations. The Kennewick School District has information about immunizations featured prominently on its website. Pasco distributes information about immunizations at school health fairs and sometimes offers the immunizations at those events.
However, the districts do try to keep kids in school even if they aren't up-to-date on their shots. Caul said Pasco students have up to a month if they only require a booster shot. The Kennewick School District gives students several days in a grace period before they can't attend school for not being immunized.
"We want students to comply but we also want them to feel welcome," Cooper said.
Person said besides making sure children are immunized, parents should ensure their children are washing their hands regularly and thoroughly to prevent the disease's spread.
If a child develops a persistent cough, they should be taken to a doctor to be checked out. However, by that point, a child has already been contagious for some period of time, perhaps weeks, she said, and that's why the disease is so difficult to control.