Vaccination offered to counter whooping cough epidemic
The UK is experiencing its worst whooping cough epidemic in 20 years. Thirteen infants have died in the 2012 outbreak, with more than 50 new cases being reported every day.
Incidents of whooping cough in 2012 are ten times the occurrence in the previous peak in 2008. In October 1,614 cases were recorded, with almost 8,000 cases already in 2012. Although the disease reasserts itself periodically, 2012 has witnessed an alarming multiplication in cases.
The previous decline in the occurrence of whooping cough, or pertussis, had made it less familiar to parents and trickier to spot in the early stages. Whooping cough starts with a persistent cough that progresses in intensity until it reaches the gasping 'whooping' stage. The cough could be accompanied by symptoms like fever or vomiting after coughing. The cough can persist for three months.
The condition is highly contagious so it is important to identify it early. Doctors can treat whooping cough with antibiotics if diagnosed in the first three weeks. Babies under six months of age are particularly vulnerable to the infection and are usually hospitalised to monitor their breathing.
Given the potential danger to infants, vaccination has become a key issue. In September the Health Protection Agency announced that all pregnant women would be offered a vaccination against whooping cough when they are 28-38 weeks pregnant. This would provide the antibodies to offer protection against babies contracting the illness in their first few weeks after birth. Gayatri Amirthalingam, a consultant epidemiologist for immunisation at the HPA, told the BBC: "We strongly recommend all pregnant women take up the offer of vaccination."
Children are vaccinated against whooping cough at two, three and four months of age, and are vaccinated again at the age of about three years and four months, before starting nursery school. Given the highly contagious nature of the disease, vaccination is the best line of defence.