What we know about the deadly whooping cough outbreak

Five babies in England have died as whooping cough cases continue to rise

child beeing vaccinated by pediatrician in presence of his mother. Preventive vaccination against Diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, hepatitis, haemophilus influenzae, pneumococcus, poliomyelitis.
Parents have been urged to have their children vaccinated as cases of whooping cough rise. (Alamy)

Five babies in England have died as a result of whooping cough, amid an outbreak of the infection across Europe.

Whooping cough is on the rise in England, with 2,700 cases reported so far this year – 1,319 of which were in March alone – marking a huge leap since 2023, when just 858 cases were reported.

Across EU countries, nearly 60,000 cases were reported in 2023 and the first quarter of 2024, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said the five infant deaths in England had occurred between January and March this year, and urged people to have their children vaccinated against the infection.

Professor Sir Stephen Powis, national medical director for the NHS in England, told PA: “It is vital that families come forward to get the protection they need. If you are pregnant and have not been vaccinated yet, or your child is not up-to-date with whooping cough or other routine vaccinations, please contact your GP as soon as possible, and if you or your child show symptoms ask for an urgent GP appointment or get help from NHS 111.”

The whooping cough deaths come amid a marked rise in cases in the UK. New data published by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) on 9 May has shown cases were up more than 40% for the month of March.

UKHSA figures showed that there were 1,319 confirmed cases of whooping cough in March in the United Kingdom. This is a 44% increase on the 918 cases in February, and a 137% rise on the 556 cases reported in January.

The total number of whooping cough cases in the UK for the first three months of 2024 is 2,793. By contrast, throughout the whole of 2023, 858 cases were confirmed.

Most cases of whooping cough (50.8%) were in people aged 15 or older, who usually get a mild version of the illness. However, the rates of whooping cough remain highest in babies under three months of age. Between January and the end of March, 108 babies under the age of three months were diagnosed with whooping cough.

As a cyclical disease, cases of whooping cough tend to peak every 3-5 years. During the last peak year, in 2016, there were 5,949 cases in England.

Cases dipped to very low numbers during the coronavirus pandemic – likely due to a lack of socialising and social distancing measures – which means the current peak is “overdue”, the UKHSA said.

Experts have warned that a recent drop in the number of people taking the pertussis whooping cough vaccine is a “key factor” contributing to the rise in cases.

The NHS recommends all pregnant women are vaccinated against whooping cough between 16 and 32 weeks. Immunity from the jab passes through the placenta to protect newborn babies in their first weeks of life.

In April, the UKHSA urged pregnant women to get vaccinated after data showed uptake of the jab had declined between October and December 2023.

That follows a gradual decline in uptake since 2019 – in both the programme for pregnant women and the infant programme.

According to the Pharmaceutical Journal, vaccination rates for pregnant women have been falling across England since December 2019, from an average of 74% to 58% in September 2023. Rates are particularly low in London and were record at just 36% in September 2023.

Dr Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton: “Outbreaks can occur in cycles, so we tend to see these rises in cases every few years. The reasons for that are not fully understood, but population-level waning immunity is likely to contribute to that, hence why a high coverage of vaccination is so important.”

Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia (UEA), said that while whooping cough is not life threatening for most adults, we “do need to be concerned about the risk to babies”.

He added: “The infection can affect anyone who is not vaccinated and even some that are. However, the main risk of death or severe long-term complications is seen in young children, especially those under three months old.

“It is this age group that are most at risk of death and developing longer term problems such as brain damage. The problem is that this age group is too young for the vaccine in most circumstances. That is why we offer vaccine to pregnant women. Not to protect them but to protect their babies during the riskiest first months of life. “

The vaccine is available from your GP. Pregnant women may also be offered the vaccination at a routine antenatal appointment from around 16 weeks of pregnancy. If someone is more than 16 weeks pregnant and has not been offered the vaccine, they should contact their midwife or GP and make an appointment.

Whooping cough is a bacterial infection that can be contracted through contact with another infected person.

Whooping cough is highly contagious, with people able to spread the infection to others from around six days after the symptoms begin to around three weeks after the cough develops, according to the NHS.

Symptoms include classic cold symptoms such as a runny nose and sore throat, and after a week develop into a cough that lasts for a few minutes (worse at night) that is often (but not always) punctuated with a whooping or whooshing sound in between as the patient gasps for air in between coughs.

The NHS also describes symptoms such as: difficulty breathing after a coughing bout and may turn blue or grey (young infants)/bringing up a thick mucus, which can make you vomit/becoming very red in the face (more common in adults).