Whooping cough symptoms and how to prevent it as five babies die

Five babies have died from whooping cough as cases continue to rise in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire and the rest of England. The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) reported 1,319 cases in England in March, after just over 900 in February, making the 2024 total nearly 2,800.

The last peak year, 2016, had 5,949 cases in England. The infection - known as the 100-day cough - can be particularly serious for babies and infants. Half of cases seen so far this year have been in the under-15s, with the highest rates in babies under three months of age.

The five babies who died this year were all under three months old. These are the first deaths since 2019.

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UKHSA has said a steady decline in uptake of the vaccine in pregnant women and children and the very low numbers seen during the pandemic, as happened with other infections because of restrictions and public behaviour, were both factors.

The agency said a peak year was therefore overdue and urged families to come forward to get vaccinated if they had not already.

Below, PA news agency provides answers to frequently asked questions about the illness.

What exactly is whooping cough?

This bacterial infection, also known as pertussis, targets the lungs and airways. Often referred to as the "100-day cough" due to the lengthy recovery period, whooping cough is highly contagious.

Could you describe the symptoms of whooping cough?

Initially, whooping cough presents cold-like symptoms such as a runny nose and sore throat. However, approximately a week later, it can progress into severe coughing fits that last several minutes and are often more intense at night.

Infants may produce a characteristic "whoop" sound or struggle to breathe after coughing, although not all exhibit this symptom.

Who does it affect the most?

While individuals aged 15 and above account for 51% of diagnoses, the disease poses the greatest risk to babies. In the first quarter of the year, 108 infants younger than three months were diagnosed with whooping cough.

What's the extent of the outbreak?

From January to March, there were 2,793 reported cases, per UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) data. March saw 1,319 cases alone, with 556 in January and 918 in February.

How does this stack up against previous years?

There were a total of 858 cases reported throughout the entirety of 2023.

What's behind the surge in cases?

Experts at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) explain that whooping cough is known to be a "cyclical disease", with peaks occurring every three to five years. The most recent significant rise was observed in 2016.

However, during the Covid-19 pandemic, instances of whooping cough were unusually low, likely due to reduced social interaction and adherence to social distancing guidelines. As a result, the current spike is considered "overdue", according to the UKHSA.

The agency also noted that the pandemic has contributed to "reduced immunity in the population". Additionally, vaccination rates have seen a decline over the past few years.

How can individuals safeguard themselves?

Expectant mothers are being strongly encouraged to accept the whooping cough vaccine to convey immunity to their newborns, which should sustain until the infants are eligible for their own vaccinations. Parents are likewise being reminded to ensure their children receive vaccinations when invited.

When is vaccination available?

The NHS advises that all pregnant women should receive the whooping cough vaccine between the 16th and 32nd weeks of pregnancy. At eight weeks old, babies are offered the six-in-one vaccine, which includes protection against whooping cough.

The second jab is offered at 12 weeks, followed by a third at 16 weeks. Once children reach the age of three years and four months, they are offered the four-in-one pre-school booster to protect against pertussis.

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