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Whooping cough cases increase

Date published: 06 January 2012

Cases of whooping cough reported to the Health Protection Agency (HPA) in England and Wales have more than doubled from 421 cases in 2010 to 1040 in 2011 according to new figures. In the North West the figures have also more than doubled from 65 in 2010 to 107 in 2011.

Increases in levels of whooping cough are seen every three to four years and figures in 2011 are in line with cases reported in the last peak year of 2008.

Whooping cough affects all ages, but over the last few months the HPA has seen an increase in cases in teenagers and adults between the ages of 15–40. Whooping cough in older people can be an unpleasant illness but does not usually lead to serious complications.

Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, can be a serious illness, especially in the very young. The main symptoms are severe coughing fits which, in babies and children, are accompanied by the characteristic “whoop” sound as the child gasps for breath after coughing. Very young children have the highest risk of severe complications and death.

The infection can be treated with a course of antibiotics to prevent the infection spreading further but young infants may need hospital care due to the risk of severe complications.

Vaccination is the most important control measure in preventing this disease and children are offered whooping cough vaccine at two, three and four months of age as part of the routine childhood vaccination programme. The vaccine for whooping cough also protects against diphtheria, polio, Haemophilus influenzae type b - a cause of meningitis - and tetanus. Children should receive a booster at around three years of age, before they start school. It is important that children receive all these doses so that they can build up and keep high levels of immunity to the disease.

Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at the HPA said: “We usually see a rise in cases of whooping cough every three to four years as the disease peaks in cycles, with 2008 being the last peak year.

“The uptake of the vaccine which protects against whooping cough is very good but it is a highly infectious disease so when there is a case it can spread quickly. Parents should ensure their children are up to date with their vaccinations so that they are protected at the earliest opportunity. The pre-school booster is also important, not only to boost protection in that child but also to help prevent them passing the infection on to vulnerable babies, as those under four months cannot be fully protected by the vaccine.”

Dr Sam Ghebrehewet, the HPA’s Immunisation lead for the North West said: “These cases prove that it is still vitally important for children to receive their childhood vaccinations, which will give life-long protection against a number of diseases and infections including whooping cough”.

“We are advising everyone to be aware of the signs and symptoms for whooping cough and as it can affect people of all ages and can cause serious illness. What could be thought of initially as a common cold with similar symptoms, can become more severe and persist for several weeks.”