Concerns after rise in whooping cough cases

vaccination syringe
The HPA is reminding us about the importance of whooping cough vaccinations. Photo: Gareth Fuller / PA.

Nearly 500 cases of whooping cough have been reported in the South West in the first part of 2012. This is more than double the cases across the whole of last year.

The Health Protection Agency says this sharp rise in cases outlines the need for vaccination and the importance of early diagnosis.

471 cases have been reported in the region this year, compared to 219 for the whole of 2011. Similar figures have been recorded across all regions in England.

Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, affects all ages, but fortunately, although unpleasant for older people, it does not usually lead to serious complications. However, for very young children it can cause more severe complications and be a life threatening disease.

The main symptoms of whooping cough are severe coughing fits which may be accompanied by the characteristic “whoop” sound caused by gasps for breath after coughing. The cough can last for weeks or months.

The Health Protection Agency has already written to GPs across the country to remind them of the signs and symptoms of the infection and stressing the importance of vaccination. The agency is also encouraging GPs to report cases quickly.

Children in the UK are offered whooping cough vaccine at two, three and four months of age as part of the routine childhood vaccination programme. The vaccine, which protects against whooping cough, also protects against diphtheria, polio, Haemophilus influenzae type b - a cause of meningitis - and tetanus. Children should receive a booster three years after their first vaccination.

The recent increases reported to the South West may be due to greater awareness of the infection and reporting of cases by healthcare professionals. Nonetheless, whooping cough can be a very unpleasant infection.

Anyone showing signs and symptoms – which include severe coughing fits accompanied by the characteristic “whoop” sound in young children but as a prolonged cough in older children and adults – should visit their GP.

If the infection is caught at an early stage, it can be treated effectively with a course of antibiotics and this will also prevent onward spread. This is very important as whooping cough can spread easily to close contacts such as household members.

Vaccination is the most effective way to protect from the infection and uptake of the vaccine is very good. 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 reduce the risk of them passing the infection on to vulnerable babies, as those under four months cannot be fully protected by the vaccine.”

– Dr Isabel Oliver, HPA South West Regional Director