Vaccination update: rise in pertussis cases across UK and Europe

Children’s nurses should advise parents and pregnant women to book an appointment to get vaccinated as cases of pertussis, also known as whooping cough, rise

Video still from a UK Health Security Agency campaign with four children staring at the camera and the tagline: ‘If we’re not vaccinated, we’re not protected’
Video still from a UK Health Security Agency campaign to drive up childhood vaccinations

Following hard on the heels of a warning about an increase in measles in the UK, there is now concern that pertussis (whooping cough) cases are also rising sharply.

According to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) there were 1,468 recorded cases in England at the end of February, compared to 858 cases for the whole of 2023, with about half being aged 15 or over.

Anecdotal evidence suggests hospitals – such as Alder Hey Children’s NHS Foundation Trust in Liverpool – are seeing an increase in cases.

The rise follows the lifting of restrictions during COVID-19 and evidence that fewer pregnant women are being vaccinated.

Pertussis symptoms include prolonged bouts of coughing and babies can develop a ‘whoop’

The UKHSA says that as a respiratory bacterial infection, pertussis is highly contagious and cases are being seen in babies, children and adults. The infection is characterised by bouts of coughing which can last for minutes and worsen at night. Young babies can develop a ‘whoop’ and problems after coughing.

In a bid to combat the rise the UKHSA has launched a marketing campaign, with videos featuring children, highlighting the benefits of vaccination for pertussis, measles and other diseases.

Parents and pregnant women are being urged to book an appointment with their GP practice to get vaccinated.

Uptake of vaccination through the NHS immunisation programme has declined

The rise in pertussis is being seen not just in the UK but also in Europe. The UKHSA says increases are cyclical and the last big increase was in 2016 with nearly 6,000 cases.

During the past decade the uptake of vaccination through the routine NHS immunisation programme has declined. NHS data show that in 2014 the number of two year olds who had their 6-in-1 vaccination was 96.3%, compared to 92.9% last year. The number of pregnant women having the pertussis vaccine has dropped from more than 70% in 2017 to 58% last year.

For more information on the vaccination programme go to NHS vaccinations and when to have them.

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