Whooping cough: More babies will die unless vaccination rates go up says leading expert

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​More babies will die from whooping cough unless vaccination rates go up to slow the spread of the infection, a leading expert has warned.

Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, consultant paediatrician and chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which advises the Government, said Covid lockdowns may have impacted on the rise in cases, particularly in older children and adults.

But he said the "biggest issue" is actually low vaccination rates, particularly among pregnant women.

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The Public Health Agency (PHA) has already urged parents to get their young children vaccinated amid a significant rise in cases of whooping cough in Northern Ireland.

Whooping cough concerns.Whooping cough concerns.
Whooping cough concerns.

The PHA said pregnant women should also take action after 769 cases of whooping cough were confirmed in the region so far this year, compared with just two between 2021 and 2023.

Louise Flanagan, PHA consultant in public health, said whooping cough spreads very easily and can make babies and young children in particular very ill.

Figures for England show 59.3% of pregnant women between October to December 2023 were vaccinated against whooping cough, almost 16% down on the same quarter in 2016/17. London has particularly low rates, at 36.8%.

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The vaccine in pregnancy helps bridge the immunity gap from when babies are born until they themselves can be vaccinated.

Data for 2022/23 shows 91.8% of children have had their whopping cough vaccines by their first birthday, with experts saying this figure also needs to be higher.

Sir Andrew told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that under-vaccination is putting "the most vulnerable - those who are too young to have been vaccinated - at greatest risk".

He said the "only thing we can actually do" about rising cases is to ensure higher vaccination rates.

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He added: "But very importantly, for this very vulnerable group, those who are too young to be vaccinated, is the vaccination rates in pregnant women.

"Very worryingly, those have fallen from a peak of about 75% of women being vaccinated during pregnancy to under 60% today, and that's what puts these very young infants at particular risk."

He said for most of the last decade there have not been many cases of whooping cough "because we're all protected by the high vaccination rates".

But as soon as vaccination rates start to fall, "we see cases rising, the same as the situation with the measles outbreak".

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He warned: "The troubling thing is that if we continue to have high rates of spread and low rates of vaccination, there will be more babies severely affected and sadly there will be more deaths."

It comes after figures released on Thursday showed five babies in England died between January and the end of March after being diagnosed with whooping cough.

More than 2,700 whooping cough cases have been reported across England so far in 2024 - more than three times the number recorded in the whole of last year.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) figures show there were 2,793 cases reported to the end of March.

That compares to 858 cases for the whole of 2023.

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UKHSA consultant epidemiologist Dr Gayatri Amirthalingam said: "Whooping cough can affect people of all ages, but for very young babies it can be extremely serious.

"Our thoughts and condolences are with those families who have so tragically lost their baby."

In March alone, some 1,319 cases were reported, according to the data.

There were 556 cases recorded in January and 918 in February.

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The bacterial infection, also known as pertussis, affects the lungs and breathing tubes.

Whooping cough can be called the "100-day cough" because of how long it can take to recover from, and it spreads very easily.

Between January and the end of March, 108 babies under the age of three months were diagnosed with whooping cough. Some 51% of cases during this period were among those aged 15 and older.

Health officials describe whooping cough as a "cyclical disease", which means it peaks every few years. With whooping cough this is every three to five years.

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The last big increase was seen in 2016, but cases dipped to very low numbers during the coronavirus pandemic which means the current peak is "overdue", the UKHSA said.

When a baby is eight weeks old they are offered the six-in-one vaccine, which includes immunisation against whooping cough.

The second dose of the vaccine is offered at 12 weeks and the third is offered at 16 weeks.

When children are three years and four months they will be offered the four-in-one pre-school booster, which protects against the illness.

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The first signs of whooping cough are similar to a cold, such as a runny nose and sore throat, but after about a week, the infection can develop into coughing bouts that last for a few minutes and are typically worse at night.

Young babies may also make a distinctive "whoop" or have difficulty breathing after a bout of coughing, though not all babies make this noise which means whooping cough can be hard to recognise.