Whooping cough claims lives of 13 babies in past year in worst outbreak in more than two decades
00:17 GMT, 30 November 2012
A total of 13 babies have died from whooping cough in the worst outbreak in more than 20 years.
There have been nearly 8,000 confirmed cases so far this year – the highest number since 1990.
Last month the Government began vaccinating pregnant women against the illness for the first time in an attempt to protect their babies.
Babies under the age of six months are likely to be admitted to hospital as they are most at risk of severe complications
Although whooping cough is not usually severe in adults, it can be deadly for newborns who can develop pneumonia.
Figures from the Health Protection Agency show there have been 494 confirmed cases in the under 1s this year, including 13 deaths.
Although babies are vaccinated against whooping cough, they are not given the first jab until they are eight weeks old followed by boosters at two and three months.
They cannot start having the jabs any earlier as their bodies are not developed enough for the vaccine to be effective.
But if pregnant women are vaccinated, they will make antibodies – proteins that fight infections – that are passed on to the foetus via the placenta.
The HPA said rates of the illness in babies had fallen slightly over the past month. But it said it was too early to tell whether this was due to the success of the immunisation campaign.
Experts are unclear as to why this outbreak is so severe but rates tend to go up and down every three or four years.
If they are low for several years and few catch the infection, everyone’s immunity goes down.
Last month the Government began vaccinating pregnant women against the illness for the first time
So if the illness reappears – after being brought in from abroad, for example – the public is far more susceptible and rates go up again.
The HPA believes this latest outbreak may have its origins in mainland Europe or America, where rates are also very high.
But the last time it reached this level was in 1990 when was in 1990 when there were 15,000 cases, and seven babies died.
The illness is named after the ‘whooping’ sound children make in between coughs when they try to catch their breath.
Adults do not tend to do this and most will go on to make a full recovery, often believing they have just had a bad cough or cold. But the disease can be fatal in babies who can stop breathing in their sleep or develop complications such as pneumonia.
Dr Gayatri Amirthalingam, consultant epidemiologist for immunisation at the HPA, said: ‘We strongly recommend all pregnant women take up the offer of vaccination.
‘Parents should also ensure their children are vaccinated against whooping cough on time, even babies of women who’ve had the vaccine in pregnancy – this is to continue their baby’s protection through childhood.
‘Parents should also be alert to the signs and symptoms of whooping cough – which include severe coughing fits accompanied by the characteristic 'whoop' sound in young children but as a prolonged cough in older children or adults.
‘It is also advisable to keep babies away from older siblings or adults who have the infection.’
WHOOPING COUGH – THE CONTAGIOUS INFECTION THAT CAN BE DEADLY TO BABIES
Whooping cough is a highly contagious bacterial infection of the lungs and airways. The medical term for whooping cough is pertussis.
The condition usually begins with a persistent dry and irritating cough which progresses to intense bouts of coughing. These are followed by a distinctive 'whooping' noise. The coughing can last for around three months. Other symptoms include raised temperature and vomiting after coughing.
Whooping cough is a cyclical disease with the number of cases peaking every 3-4 years. There is currently a peak occurring.
Whooping cough is caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis, which can be passed from person to person through droplets spread by coughs and sneezes.
It can be treated successfully with antibiotics and most people make a full recovery, however measures should be taken to stop it spreading.
Children with whooping cough should be kept away from school or nursery until they have taken antibiotics for five days. The same applies to adults returning to their workplace.
Young babies under the age of six months are likely to be admitted to hospital as they are most at risk of severe complications, such as serious breathing difficulties.
They will be treated in isolation to prevent the infection spreading and will be given antibiotics into a vein through a drip (intravenously).
Source: NHS Choices