Whooping cough vaccination for pregnant women extended

Dr Lucy Jessop, Consultant in Health Protection at the PHA.
Dr Lucy Jessop, Consultant in Health Protection at the PHA.

The Public Health Agency has announced that pregnant women can now avail of the whooping cough (pertussis) vaccination from week 16 of their pregnancy.

The change comes following advice from the UK Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), based on a study which showed that protection for the baby from vaccination is likely to be better if the mum is immunised earlier in pregnancy.

The vaccine was previously aimed at women in weeks 28 to 32 of pregnancy.

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.

Four years ago, in response to a national whooping cough outbreak, pregnant women were offered the whooping cough vaccination for the first time as part of a programme to help protect their newborn babies.

Recently there has been an increase in the number of cases of whooping cough in Northern Ireland, with 79 confirmed in 2015, compared with just 33 in 2014. The total in 2013 was 54, but there aren’t as many as in 2012 which saw 314 cases.

Dr Lucy Jessop, Consultant in Health Protection at the PHA, said: “Offering the whooping cough vaccine to all pregnant women who have reached week 16 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 uptake of this vaccine has so far has been lower than expected at around 60%, but by getting vaccinated, the baby’s risk of being infected is reduced by over 90%, so we want mums-to-be to avail of it.

“The best time to get the vaccine is now from 16 weeks of pregnancy, but if a woman misses out, she can still get it later in pregnancy. However, the best protection to the baby is when the mother gets the vaccine as close to the recommended time as possible. The vaccine is given at your GP’s surgery – make sure you make an appointment to get it.”

After birth, parents should ensure their infants 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 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.pha.site/whoopingcough or ask your GP or midwife.

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