The Public Health Agency (PHA) is reminding parents of the importance of their children completing the childhood immunisation programme to help prevent serious disease and illness following a reported increase of whooping cough (pertussis) cases in England and Wales.
While uptake levels for childhood vaccines are very high in Northern Ireland and there has been no rise in the number of whooping cough cases reported here (16* cases in 2010 and 17 cases in 2011), the fact that cases are being reported means that there is no room for complacency as the disease is still present. There have been several cases since October 2011 among young children and babies some of whom have required hospital treatment so parents are therefore being urged to ensure that their children are fully up to date with their immunisations.
Pertussis (whooping cough) is a disease that can cause long bouts of coughing and choking which can make it hard to breathe. It is accompanied by the characteristic ‘whoop’ sound as the child gasps for breath after coughing. It can last for up to 10 weeks and can be very serious for young children, and even fatal for babies under one year old. Before the pertussis vaccine was introduced, up to 3,500 cases of the disease were reported each year in Northern Ireland, so the current numbers show the dramatic benefits of vaccination.
In England and Wales, cases of whooping cough reported to the Health Protection Agency (HPA) have more than doubled, from 421 cases in 2010 to 1040* 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.
The infection can be treated with a course of antibiotics, but young infants may need hospital care due to the risk of severe complications.
Dr Richard Smithson, Consultant in Health Protection, PHA, said: “Vaccination is the most important control measure in preventing this disease and children are offered the whooping cough vaccine at two, three and four months of age as part of the routine childhood vaccination programme. The vaccine for whooping cough is included in a jab that also protects against diphtheria, polio, Haemophilus influenza type B – a cause of meningitis – and tetanus. Children should receive a booster at around three and a half to four 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.
“Northern Ireland has uptake rates of over 98% for the primary vaccines by two years of age, which is an excellent achievement, but I would urge the small remainder of parents whose children have not received full protection against these serious diseases, to do so. Whooping cough is a highly infectious disease so it can spread quickly amongst people who have not been vaccinated.”
Dr Smithson continued: “These excellent uptake rates are a testament to the GPs and nurses who have done a tremendous job in helping us attain levels well above the UK average, but above all they are a great tribute to parents who are choosing to do the best thing for their children by protecting them against these serious infections. I would urge those few parents whose children aren’t fully vaccinated to ensure that they get all the recommended vaccines as soon as possible. It is never too late to get the vaccines, just speak to your GP or health visitor to arrange it.
“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, or a prolonged cough in older children and adults – should visit their GP as soon as possible.”
Contact the PHA Press Office on 028 9031 1611.
Notes to the editor
- Whooping cough is a “Notifiable disease” and up to date figures on all Notifiable diseases in Northern Ireland can be viewed at:
Vaccination uptake figures for Northern Ireland can be viewed at:
- The 1040* total of laboratory confirmed whooping cough cases reported to the HPA are a provisional total.
- For further information on vaccines please go to http://www.publichealth.hscni.net/publications/immunisation-pre-school-children-three-five-years-old