Hot on the heels of news about flu immunisations being extended to all children, we now have more news about infectious diseases and immunisation – this time about whooping cough. There have been about 2,500 cases this year in England and Wales, compared to 311 at the same time last year. Cases are up in Scotland and Northern Ireland too. Most worryingly, very young children (under three months) who are most at risk of dying from it, are also being affected – 186 cases compared to 72 over the same period last year.
Does this mean immunisation isn’t working? Absolutely not. Before immunisation for whooping cough was introduced in 1957, it could affect 150,000 people and kill 300 a year. This year we have had five deaths – still five too many, but a clear indication of the benefits of immunisation to all of us.
There are two main reasons for the surge in cases. Firstly, whooping cough outbreaks tend to come in cycles every three to four years, and there has been a sharp rise in other countries, such as the USA and Australia, in recent months as well.
Secondly, whooping cough doesn’t produce life-long immunity. Babies are at by far the greatest risk of serious complications, and childhood immunisation at two, three and four months gives them good protection for several years. As immunity wanes over the years, older people are once again at risk of catching it. Even though they rarely get complications, having enough people affected in a community increases the chance of babies being exposed before they’re old enough to be immunised.
Pregnant women and teenagers may be most likely to spread the disease to babies – that’s why the Department of Health’s body of experts, the JCVI, is considering offering boosters to people in these groups. In the meantime, if you have a new baby, it’s essential to get their immunisations as soon as possible. They’re offered at two, three and four months, and by the third immunisation they should be fully protected. They will also get a booster with their pre-school immunisations. Lots of parents worry that if their child has a cold they shouldn’t get them immunised, but should wait until they’re fully over it. At the moment, delay could be disastrous if it means your baby being at risk of whooping cough for longer. If in doubt, do speak to your GP.
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