PARENTS are being urged to get their children vaccinated against whooping cough after a rise in cases of the potentially deadly illness in the North East. Experts at the Health Protection Agency (HPA) are advising mums and dads to ensure their children are protected against the highly contagious infection after the number of cases in the region increased from 40 to 69 in the past year.
Nationally, the number of cases has more than doubled, up from 421 to 1,040, over the same period
Julia Waller, immunisation lead for the HPA in the North East, said increases in levels of whooping cough are seen every three to four years, with the figures in 2011 in line with cases reported in the last peak year of 2008.
“Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, affects people of all ages,” she said. “In older people, the infection can be an unpleasant illness but does not usually lead to serious complications.
“However, the illness can be very serious in the very young, particularly babies who are too young to have received the first scheduled dose of whooping cough vaccine, which is offered at two months of age.
“The main symptoms are severe coughing fits which, in some cases, is accompanied by the characteristic ‘whoop’ sound as the child gasps for breath after coughing.”
She added that over the last few months the HPA has seen an increase in cases in teenagers and adults between the ages of 15 to 40, so are advising anyone who has symptoms of whooping cough to contact their GP and avoid contact with young babies.
Ms Waller added: “The infection can be treated with a course of antibiotics, which also prevents the infection spreading further but young infants may need hospital care due to the risk of severe compilations.
“That’s why we’re urging parents to make sure their children are fully protected against whooping cough. The vaccination is essential in preventing the illness in children who have reached the age that it can be given safely.”
Vaccination is the most important way of preventing the disease and children are offered whooping cough vaccine at two, three and four months of age as part of the routine NHS programme.
The vaccine for whooping cough also protects against diphtheria, polio, haemophilus influenza type b - a cause of meningitis - and tetanus.
Children should receive a booster at about three years of age, before they start school.
Health experts say it is important that children receive all doses so that they can build up and keep high levels of immunity to the disease.
“The uptake of the vaccine which protects against whooping cough is very good but as the disease is highly infectious it can spread quickly,” said Ms Waller.
“Parents should ensure their children are up to date with their vaccinations so that they are protected at the earliest opportunity.
“The pre-school booster is also important, not only to boost protection in that child but also to help prevent them passing the infection on to vulnerable babies, as those under four months cannot be fully protected by the vaccine.”
She added: “Anyone showing signs and symptoms, which include severe coughing fits accompanied by the characteristic ‘whoop’ sound in young children but as a prolonged cough in older children and adults, should visit their GP as soon as possible.”
The HPA has written to GPs to remind them of the symptoms of the infection and stress the importance of vaccination.
The agency is also encouraging GPs to report cases quickly to reduce the spread of the infection and make them aware of the HPA’s guidance for the management of whooping cough cases.
WHAT IS WHOOPING COUGH?
WHOOPING cough, sometimes referred to as pertussis, is an infection of the lining of the airways. It mainly affects the windpipe, trachea, and the two airways that branch off from it to the lungs, the bronchi.
The condition is known as whooping cough because the main symptom is a hacking cough, which is often followed by a sharp intake of breath that sounds like a “whoop”.
Other symptoms include a runny nose, raised temperature, severe coughing fits and vomiting after coughing.
See your GP if you notice any of the symptoms of whooping cough.
Whooping cough is highly infectious. The condition is caused by a bacterium called bordetella pertussis, which can be passed from person to person through droplets in the air from coughing and sneezing.