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Whooping cough cases continue to rise with sadly five infant deaths reported



New data published today by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) shows cases of whooping cough continue to increase with 1,319 cases confirmed in March. This follows 556 cases in January and 918 in February, bringing the total number of cases in 2024 to 2,793.

Sadly, in the first quarter of 2024 (January - March), there have been five infant deaths. Young infants are at highest risk of severe complications and death from whooping cough.* Updated estimates of vaccine effectiveness in pregnancy shows high levels of protection (92%) against infant death.

During this quarter, while most cases (50.8%, 1420) were in those aged 15 years or older who usually get a mild illness, the rates of whooping cough remain highest in babies under 3 months of age.

Whooping cough cases have been rising across England, as well as in many other countries, since December 2023 due to a combination of factors. Whooping cough is a cyclical disease that peaks every 3-5 years. The last cyclical increase occurred in 2016. However, in common with other diseases, cases fell to very low numbers during the pandemic due to restrictions and public behaviours. A peak year is therefore overdue. The impact of the pandemic also means there is reduced immunity in the population.

Uptake of vaccinations that protect against whooping cough have fallen in recent years across the country – in both the programme for pregnant women and the infant programme. Timely vaccination in pregnancy and in infancy are both important to protect vulnerable young babies from serious disease.

Emma Booth, Health Protection Consultant leading on vaccine preventable diseases for UKHSA West Midlands, said: “Vaccination remains the best defence against whooping cough, and it is vital that pregnant women and young infants receive their vaccines at the right time.“Pregnant women are offered a whooping cough vaccine in every pregnancy, ideally between 20 and 32 weeks. This passes protection to their baby in the womb so that they are protected from birth in the first months of their life when they are most vulnerable and before they can receive their own vaccines.“All babies are given three doses of the 6 in 1 jab at 8, 12 and 16 weeks of age to protect against whooping cough and other serious diseases such as diphtheria and polio with a pre-school booster offered at 3 years 4 months.“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.”

NHS National Medical Director, Professor Sir Stephen Powis, said: "With cases of whooping cough continuing to rise sharply across the country, and today's figures sadly showing five infant deaths, it is vital that families come forward to get the protection they need. 

"If you are pregnant and have not been vaccinated yet, or your child is not up-to-date with whooping cough or other routine vaccinations, please contact your GP as soon as possible, and if you or your child show symptoms ask for an urgent GP appointment or get help from NHS 111."

Whooping cough, clinically known as pertussis, is a bacterial infection which affects the lungs. The first signs of infection 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.

If anyone in your family is diagnosed with whooping cough, it’s important they stay at home and do not go into work, school or nursery until 48 hours after starting antibiotics, or 3 weeks after symptoms start if they have not had antibiotics. This helps to prevent the spread of infection, especially to vulnerable groups, including infants. However, vaccination remains the best protection for babies and children.

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