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Map shows whooping cough hotspots as 'worst outbreak in 40 years' kills 5 babies

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A MAP reveals whooping cough hotspots across England and Wales – after reports that five babies died from the highly contagious illness.

The UK Health Security Agency confirmed there were five infant deaths in England between January and March, as experts warn we might be on the cusp of the worst whooping cough outbreak in 40 years.

Map of suspected cases of whooping cough

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Map of suspected cases of whooping cough

UKHSA said last week that  2,793 cases of the bacterial lung infection – also known as pertussis – were spotted in England in the first three months of 2024.

This marks a dramatic rise from the 858 cases and one death during the whole of 2023.

The health watchdog also releases weekly whooping cough tallies for England and Wales, based on notifications it receives from doctors about suspected infectious disease cases.

Its most recent Notifications of Infectious Diseases (NOIDs) report for the week leading up to May 5 suggests infection rates are highest in the South West and South East.

Read more on whooping cough

GPs reported 158 suspected cases of whooping cough in the South West between April 29 and May 5, while the South East saw 140 new cases in that same time period.

London also became a whooping cough hotspot, with 129 new cases flagged.

Wales followed closely with 114 pertussis infections.

Meanwhile, doctors in the East Midlands notified UKHSA of 101 new whooping cough cases in the first week of May.

Next came Yorkshire and the Humber with 91 new infections, the East of Englanf with 82, the West Midlands with 78, the North West with 66 and the North East with 28.

VACCINES CUT RISK OF DEATH ‘ENORMOUSLY’

While whooping cough activity in England remained “exceptionally low” between April 2020 and the summer of 2023, cases have increased since then, with almost 3,000 confirmed in the first three months of this year.

Brave parents of 15-day-old baby girl who died of whooping cough share her heartbreaking final moments

Though the surge was “expected based on usual seasonal patterns” and the fact that pertussis peaks occur every three to five years, this still marks a dramatic jump from the total number of cases confirmed throughout 2023.

The last spike in the UK was in 2016, meaning a peak year in cases is “overdue”.

Paul Hunter – a professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia – warned that we might be on the cusp of the worst whooping cough outbreak in 40 years.

Whooping cough is a bacterial infection of the lungs and breathing tubes that can be especially dangerous to young babies.

Starting off with cold like symptoms and progressing into nasty coughing bouts, the illness gets its name from the distinctive whoop sound some people make when they gasp for breath between coughs.

Dr David Elliman, Consultant in Community Child Health at Great Ormond Street Hospital, said: “The rise in cases of whooping cough has inevitably resulted in a rise in deaths of those at greatest risk of getting the disease most severely – young babies.”

He noted that the UK is not the only country to see a peak of pertusis – the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control confirmed last week there is an epidemic on the continent.

Full list of symptoms of whooping cough

WHOOPING cough is a bacterial infection of the lungs and breathing tubes.

The first signs of the condition tend to be similar to a cold – such as a runny nose, a sore throat, red and watery eyes, and a slightly raised temperature.

After about a week, other signs start to appear. These include:

  • Coughing bouts that last for a few minutes and are worse at night
  • “Whoop” sounds as your gasp for breath between coughs
  • Difficulty breathing after a coughing bout
  • Turning blue or grey (children)
  • Becoming very red in the face (adults)
  • Bringing up thick mucus, which can make you vomit
  • Bleeding under the skin or in the eyes
  • Feeling very tired after coughing

The cough may last several weeks or months.

Babies under six months have an increased risk of problems such as dehydration, breathing problems, pneumonia and seizures.

Older children and adults may experience sore ribs, hernia, middle ear infections, and urinary incontinence.

Source: NHS

A number of factors that are likely to be contributing to the situation, Dr Elliman said.

“The measures taken to control COVID-19 also suppressed many other diseases, whooping cough amongst them,” he explained.

“Since these measures have been lifted there has been a bounce back in many of these diseases.”

A “small but steady decline” in whooping cough vaccination rates is also to blame, the child health expert added.

Just 61 per cent of pregnant women in England were vaccinated in 2023, down from 71 per cent in 2020.

Meanwhile, the number of two-year-olds who completed their six-in-one vaccinations as of September 2023 was 92.9 per cent, compared with 96.3 per cent in March 2014.

“The NHS is going through a period of turmoil and all services are under considerable pressure. This has had a part to play,” Dr Elliman said.

“There is no evidence that the low uptake of whooping cough vaccine in pregnancy is due to women declining the vaccine.

“More likely is a lack of clarity as to who is responsible for giving it – primary care or maternity.”

The whooping cough vaccine in offered to babies at 8 weeks through their 6-in-1 vaccine, with further doses at 12 and 16 weeks, followed by a booster at 3 years 4 months.

“However, this does not protect very young babies. The best way to do that is by immunising pregnant women during pregnancy,” Dr Elliman noted.

“While the vaccines against whooping cough are not 100 per cent protective, they reduce the chances of babies dying enormously.

“Parents should ensure that their babies are immunised on time, but as importantly that they get the vaccine when pregnant.”

According to UKHSA: “Vaccination in pregnancy is key to passively protecting babies before they can be directly protected by the infant vaccine programme.”

It recommended mums get jabbed between the 20 or 32 week mark, though the vaccine “can be given as early as 16 weeks for pragmatic reasons”, UKHSA added.

The life-saving vaccines you need at every age

EIGHT WEEKS

  • 6-in-1 vaccine
  • Rotavirus vaccine
  • MenB vaccine

12 WEEKS

  • 6-in-1 vaccine (2nd dose)
  • Pneumococcal vaccine
  • Rotavirus vaccine (2nd dose)

16 WEEKS

  • 6-in-1 vaccine (3rd dose)
  • MenB vaccine (2nd dose)

ONE YEAR

  • Hib/MenC vaccine (1st dose)
  • MMR vaccine (1st dose)
  • Pneumococcal vaccine (2nd dose)
  • MenB vaccine (3rd dose)

TWO TO 15 YEARS

  • Children’s flu vaccine (every year until children finish Year 11 of secondary school)

THREE YEARS AND FOUR MONTHS

  • MMR vaccine (2nd dose)
  • 4-in-1 pre-school booster vaccine

12 TO 13 YEARS

14 YEARS

  • 3-in-1 teenage booster vaccine
  • MenACWY vaccine

65 YEARS

  • Flu vaccine (given every year after turning 65)
  • Pneumococcal vaccine
  • Shingles vaccine (if you turned 65 on or after 1 September 2023)

70 to 79 YEARS

Source: The NHS

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