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Three babies die of whooping cough – as cases continue to rise sharply

Three more babies have died after developing whooping cough in England.

Eight infants have died between January and April 2024, according to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA). This is three more than the previously reported figure for the year so far.

Health officials are urging pregnant women to get the whooping cough vaccine.

In England, provisionally there were 4,793 laboratory-confirmed cases reported to the UKHSA between January and April with 555 cases in January 2024, 920 in February, 1,430 in March and 1,888 cases in April.

The UKHSA said the first signs of whooping cough are similar to a cold, but after about a week more symptoms can develop.

Whooping cough explained:
What is it? And the symptoms to look out for

This peak in whooping cough cases is well overdue

A fall in vaccinations is a driver but not the sole reason why we are seeing a deadly surge in whooping cough.

Unlike the recent spike in measles cases where it could be attributed to reduced immunity, with whooping cough it is more complex and multi-factorial.

The COVID pandemic is a significant factor. Whooping cough is a cyclical disease that peaks every three to five years and the last cyclical increase occurred in 2016.

But cases fell to very low numbers during the pandemic due to social mixing restrictions. So the peak we are witnessing now was well overdue.

The reduced access to vaccination programmes during the pandemic also means there is reduced immunity in the population. That made a growing problem worse.

Uptake of vaccinations that protect against whooping cough had been falling in recent years before the global health crisis across the country. That’s for both pregnant women and infant children.

Vaccination remains the best defence against whooping cough so it’s vital pregnant women and young infants receive their vaccines at the right time.

Whooping cough affects people of all ages and adults are unlikely to become very sick but, as we have seen, it can be deadly for babies and young children.

Throughout the whole of 2023, the UKHSA said there were 858 recorded cases of whooping cough.

Last month health officials said five babies in England died after being diagnosed with the infection.

Dr Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, said at the time the data “illustrates just how serious whooping cough is – it can and does kill babies”.

He added a fall in vaccinations “will be a key factor contributing to this rise in cases of whooping cough,” and noted that it “is as infectious as measles, and more infectious than COVID-19“.

Whooping cough can be called the “100-day cough” because of how long it can take to recover from it, and it spreads very easily.

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From May: Whooping cough on the rise

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Professor Sir Stephen Powis, NHS national medical director, said cases of whooping cough were “continuing to rise sharply”.

“It is vital that families come forward to get the protection they need,” he added.

“We urge all pregnant women to get vaccinated to help protect their babies in the first few weeks of their life – parents should also ensure that their children get protected in the first few months after birth as part of the routine NHS vaccine offer.”

When a baby is eight weeks old, they are offered the six-in-one vaccine which includes protection against whooping cough.


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