THE Public Health Agency (PHA) is urging pregnant women who are 28 weeks pregnant or more to get the whooping cough (pertussis) vaccine, following a rise in the numbers of cases.
During 2012 there were 309 confirmed cases, compared with just 15 in 2011. Increases in levels of the illness are seen every three to four years, however, the numbers in 2012 are the highest for about twenty years.
At the end of September last year, the Health Minister announced that pregnant women would be offered the whooping cough vaccination to protect their newborn babies who are not usually vaccinated themselves until between two and four months. The introduction of the vaccine programme in pregnant women 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, PHA, said: “So far there has been a good response from pregnant women to getting vaccinated. Provisional figures from the first two months of the campaign show that around 60% of women who were due the vaccine had it. 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.
“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. Vaccination of babies is routinely given at two, three and four months of age, with a booster administered three years later.
“The vaccine which will be given to expectant mothers through this programme, called Repevax®, has been used with young children for many years now and has an excellent safety record. There is no evidence to suggest that the use of this vaccine during pregnancy is unsafe for either the expectant mother or their unborn baby. The vaccine is not live and cannot cause whooping cough. There may be some mild side effects from this vaccination, such as swelling, redness or tenderness, but serious side effects are extremely rare.
“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 coordinated through GPs who will contact eligible women.”
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. 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.