About six weeks ago I wrote a blog about whooping cough. Figures were looking scary - eight times more cases reported than this time a year ago. Far from suggesting this meant immunisations weren't working, I compared the statistics today - 2,500 cases in seven months - with the 150,000 cases, and 300 deaths in a year, before the whooping cough immunisation programme was introduced.
But the story isn't over yet. There have now been about 5,000 reported cases of whooping cough in England and Wales this year so far. Babies, especially those under three months old, are the ones we need to worry about most. They're the ones who are the most likely to get serious complications - and tragically, nine of them have died this year already from whooping cough.
To work out how to protect them better, the Department of Health looked at several possibilities. Babies are offered their first immunisations at two, three and four months. They take some time to build up immunity at this early age, and aren't fully protected against whooping cough until they have their third immunisation at four months. If mothers were delaying immunising their children, or not bringing them in at all, that would clearly be a cause for concern. In fact, immunisation rates for babies in the UK are at an all-time high, so there was no room for improvement there.
Would it help if babies started their immunisations earlier, say at six weeks? The evidence says this still wouldn't make enough difference in that crucial first three months of life. The next option was to look at introducing a booster programme for pregnant women, as has been done in the USA since whooping cough levels increased there, too. This is what the Department of Health has recommended in its announcement today.
The evidence shows that the best time to boost a mother's immunity to give the best protection to her newborn baby is between 28 and 38 weeks of pregnancy. The vaccine that will be used is the same one that is already given to pre-school children, so its safety has been tested on millions already. It can be given as a single injection at routine antenatal appointments and there is enough stock in reserve for every pregnant woman in the country to get one straightaway.
The introduction of flu vaccination for pregnant women has suggested that women are wary about getting immunisations while they're pregnant. I believe firmly after reading all the evidence, that the benefits of flu immunisation in pregnancy outweigh any possible risks. But I've also been an expectant mother, and I am only too aware of the responsibility and anxiety you feel for your baby - and your fear of doing anything that may harm your unborn child. Logic isn't always enough.
But the whole point of immunising pregnant women against whooping cough is precisely to protect those helpless babies. Vaccinating the mother will boost her antibodies. Mothers will pass on these antibodies to their babies, protecting them against the horror of whooping cough before the baby's own immunisations have had a chance to work fully.
I've said it many times before but I'll say it again - immunisation programmes have probably saved more lives in the last century than anything else we humans have ever done, apart perhaps from getting clean water. Scare stories come and go, but the diseases are here to stay. Your baby needs your help - don't let him or her down.
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