The Public Health Agency (PHA) has welcomed the recommendation from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) that the whooping cough (pertussis) vaccination programme for pregnant women should continue for a further five years. The advice comes after two new research papers were published which showed that the vaccination campaign has been very effective since its introduction and also provided further reassurance that the vaccine is very safe when given in pregnancy.
In September 2012, in response to a national whooping cough outbreak, the Health Minister Edwin Poots announced that pregnant women would be offered the whooping cough vaccination as part of a programme to help protect their newborn babies. Today he confirmed he was accepting the JCVI recommendation to continue for a further five years.
The Health Minister said: “I am pleased to extend this vaccination programme for the next five years. My decision is based on independent expert advice from the JCVI. In Northern Ireland we achieve very high uptake rates for the routine vaccination of babies at two, three and four months, but newborn babies are at risk from whooping cough until they are old enough to be vaccinated for themselves.
“Offering whooping cough vaccine to all pregnant women who have reached week 28 or above provides the best protection for those first few months of their baby’s life. I would therefore urge all eligible women to take up the offer of this vaccine and help protect their baby after he or she is born.”
The continuation of the vaccination programme in pregnant women (between 28 and 38 weeks) will help to boost the short-term immunity passed on by women to their babies while they are still in the womb.
Dr Richard Smithson, Consultant in Health Protection at the PHA, said: “The new research shows that vaccinating pregnant women against whooping cough has been highly effective in helping to protect young infants from this potentially fatal disease.
“Babies born to women vaccinated at least a week before delivery generally had a 91% reduced risk of becoming ill with whooping cough in their first weeks of life, compared with babies whose mothers had not been vaccinated. It is also very reassuring to see further evidence that giving the vaccine to pregnant women is safe for both mother and baby.
“Whooping cough is a disease that can cause long bouts of coughing and choking, which can make it hard to breathe. It can be very serious for young children, and even fatal for babies under one year old.
“Newborn babies are likely to have little or no protection against whooping cough until they have been fully vaccinated themselves. The vaccination of pregnant mothers will help to protect children from birth until they are old enough to be vaccinated themselves, as antibodies passed from the pregnant mother to her unborn child help protect the baby in the first few weeks of life.
“The latest figures show that around 60% of pregnant women have received the whooping cough vaccination. We are very pleased with this response but would urge those women who are over 28 weeks pregnant and haven’t yet had the vaccine to get it as soon as possible.
“The best time to get the vaccine is between 28 and 32 weeks of pregnancy, but if a woman misses out during this time she can still get it after 32 weeks. The vaccination programme will be offered by GPs. If you are over 28 weeks pregnant and haven’t heard from your GP yet, then contact the surgery to arrange an appointment to get the vaccine.”
All parents should ensure their children are vaccinated against whooping cough on time, even babies of women who’ve had the vaccine in pregnancy. This is to continue their baby’s protection through childhood. Parents should also be alert to the signs and symptoms of whooping cough which include severe coughing fits accompanied by the characteristic ‘whoop’ sound in young children, and by a prolonged cough in older children or adults. Very young babies may not develop the ’whoop’ but have severe coughing bouts and can’t catch their breath. It is also advisable to keep babies away from anyone showing the signs and symptoms of whooping cough.
For further information on whooping cough and the vaccination programme, please see the PHA guidance at www.publichealth.hscni.net/whooping-cough or ask your GP or midwife.
Research on effectiveness of pertussis vaccine is available from:
PHE effectiveness paper, Lancet Infection Diseases –http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(14)60686-3/abstract
MHRA safety paper, BMJ 2014;349:g4219 – http://www.bmj.com/content/349/bmj.g4219