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As parents check soap, Kleenex and disinfecting wipes off their kids' back-to-school shopping lists, public health officials want them to remember the vaccines children need, too.

"The classroom is close quarters, so kids are sitting next to each other, playing together, and a lot of these diseases, like pertussis, or whooping cough, can be spread easily," said Lauren Hawkins, pediatric clinic manager at the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department.

Requirements for school vaccinations in Tennessee

› Kindergarteners and other children enrolling in a Tennessee school for the first time must provide schools with a complete, official Tennessee Immunization Certificate before classes begin. The certificate must be signed by a qualified health care provider or verified by the state’s Immunization Information System.

› All current students entering seventh grade are required to give the school a limited official Tennessee Immunization Certificate showing they have had a booster shot for tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis. The HPV cancer vaccine and first meningococcal meningitis vaccine are recommended at this age and can be given at the same time as the required Tdap booster.

› Immunization requirements for college entry vary by institution, but teens who have had all recommended vaccines including their meningitis booster shot after they turn 16 will be sure to have met any college’s requirements.

Source: Tennessee Department of Health

Children enrolling in Tennessee child care facilities or schools for the first time and all rising seventh graders must provide a state immunization certificate before classes start as proof they've received required immunizations. Additional vaccines are required for students at Tennessee colleges and universities.

The Tennessee Department of Health issued an alert last week urging parents to ensure children are up-to-date on shots and avoid the last-minute scramble.

"Take this opportunity to talk with your health care provider to be sure your child is fully immunized, and make appointments now so your child won't miss school because he or she hasn't had needed vaccines," Dr. Kelly Moore, director of the Tennessee Immunization Program, said in a statement.

Hawkins said all required vaccines are available at the health department on a walk-in basis. Many vaccines are covered through health insurance, and income-based programs are available for the under and uninsured. To avoid longer waits and allow time for the body to build immunity to the diseases being vaccinated against, she recommends coming in as soon as possible.

Recent measles and whooping cough outbreaks across the United States, fueled by a rise in the number of unvaccinated children, underscore the importance of immunizations, Hawkins said, and parents with questions about vaccines should refer to reliable health care providers rather than the internet.

"It's definitely really important for as many people to get the vaccine as possible in a community to help protect that whole community's health," she said. "There still can be cases and outbreaks, and getting the vaccine is the best way to prevent the spread."

Also, discomfort isn't a reason to leave children unprotected.

"Nobody likes to get a shot, and every kid is a little different," Hawkins said. "Having a supportive parent there or caregiver is really important, and the kids are definitely looking toward the reaction of whoever's with them."

Contact staff writer Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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