Protect your child against whooping cough

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An increase in the number of reported whooping cough (pertussis) cases over recent months in Northern Ireland has prompted the Public Health Agency (PHA) to remind parents of the importance of getting their children vaccinated.

While uptake levels for childhood vaccines are very high in Northern Ireland, there has been a rise in the number of whooping cough cases this year. There have been 139 confirmed cases up to 23 July this year, with 30 of these being reported in the last month alone. This compares with just 15 confirmed cases in the whole of 2011. Of the 139 cases, 93 have been reported in children. Therefore the PHA is urging parents to ensure that their children are fully up to date with their immunisations.

The increase in whooping cough incidents is in line with England, Wales and Scotland, where cases of the disease reported to the Health Protection Agency (HPA) have also shown sharp rises. Increases in levels of the illness are seen every three to four years and this rise is in line with this.

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 aged 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.

Dr Richard Smithson, Consultant in Health Protection, PHA, said: “Quite a few of the cases are in children too young to be vaccinated, therefore the PHA wants to urge parents to try to protect young babies in particular from coming into contact with people with coughs and to get children vaccinated on time from two months of age. Whooping cough can be fatal for babies aged under one.

“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 the disease 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.”

Dr Smithson explained that whooping can be very unpleasant and is highly infectious so it can spread quickly amongst people who have not been vaccinated. “Anyone showing signs and symptoms – which include severe coughing fits that may be accompanied by the characteristic ‘whoop’ sound in children, or a prolonged cough in older children and adults – should visit their GP as soon as possible,” he added.

“Babies may not always have the ‘whoop’ sound. Although the vaccine gives very good protection, no vaccine is 100% effective and there is still a small risk even if your child has been vaccinated – especially if they have had only one or two doses and not the full course. So if you think your child may have whooping cough even though they have had the vaccine, you should still arrange for them to see their GP.

“Northern Ireland has uptake rates of over 98% for the primary vaccines by two years of age, which is an excellent achievement, but I urge the small remainder of parents whose children aren’t fully vaccinated to please ensure that they get all the recommended vaccines as soon as possible. Just speak to your GP or health visitor to arrange it.”