Parents urged to get children vaccinated as whooping cough deaths rise

Vaccination concept. whooping cough. Pediatrician doctor giving vaccine shot to little baby at home, making injection for infant child, afraid kid looking at doc
A doctor has urged parents to vaccinate their children as whooping cough cases rise. (Getty Images)

Five infants under three months of age have died from whooping cough this year, as cases continue to spread across the country.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has reported 1,319 cases of whooping cough in England in March, up from 900 in February and bringing the total for 2024 so far to 2,800. The UKHSA worries this means it may be a ‘bumper’ year for the infection after the last peak was in 2016 with 5,949 cases.

The NHS describes whooping cough (also known as pertussis) as a bacterial infection of the lungs and breathing tubes. It can cause serious issues, especially among children and babies, which is why the health service recommends vaccinating against it.

"Vaccination remains the best defence against whooping cough and it is vital that pregnant women and young infants receive their vaccines at the right time," Dr Gayatri Amirthalingam of the UKHSA told the BBC.

"Whooping cough can affect people of all ages, but for very young babies it can be extremely serious. Our thoughts and condolences are with those families who have so tragically lost their baby."

The UKHSA has seen a steady decline in children completing their vaccinations over the past decade.

A doctor is injecting a vaccine to a baby boy indoor
There has been a decline in children and pregnant women getting their vaccinations over the past decade. (Getty Images)

In 2023, just 92.9% of two-year-olds had completed their six-in-one vaccinations, which protects against whooping cough, compared to 96.3% of the same age group in 2014. It added that the maternal pertussis vaccine, which is offered to pregnant women, dropped from 70% in 2017 to 58% in 2023.

This phenomenon could be described as ‘vaccine hesitation’, with a growing number of people hesitant to vaccinate their children.

"Vaccine hesitancy has been on the rise in recent years due to a confluence of factors," Dr Joseph Ambani tells Yahoo UK. "Misinformation spread through various channels, including social media, has fuelled scepticism and eroded trust in vaccines and the healthcare system.

"Additionally, a growing emphasis on individual autonomy and distrust in authority figures has contributed to a culture of vaccine hesitancy. Cultural, religious, and ideological beliefs also play a significant role, influencing perceptions of vaccine necessity and safety."

He adds that addressing vaccine hesitancy requires a ‘multi-faceted approach’ that involves providing accurate information and promoting the importance of vaccination for individual and community health.

"Among parents, concerns about vaccine ingredients, potential side effects, and perceived conflicts of interest within the medical community can contribute to hesitancy," he adds. "The decline in infant vaccination rates against whooping cough can be attributed to a combination of these factors, compounded by the dissemination of misinformation through social media platforms and anti-vaccine advocacy groups."

The first signs of whooping cough are similar to a cold, like a runny nose and sore throat. However after around a week, the infection can develop into coughing bouts that last for a few minutes and are typically worse at night, according to the UKHSA. Young babies may also make a distinctive 'whoop' sound – hence the name – or have difficulty breathing after coughing. But it's important to note not all babies make this noise, meaning whooping cough can be hard to recognise.

It is a highly contagious disease and infants are particularly vulnerable to it thanks to their underdeveloped immune systems.

Bck View of baby girl patient receiving vaccine at the doctor's office, focus on hand holding vaccine
Complications of whooping cough can be life-threatening. (Getty Images)

"Complications of whooping cough in infants can be severe and even life-threatening, including pneumonia, seizures, apnoea, and brain damage," Dr Ambani warns. "Tragically, infants under the age of one year are at the highest risk of mortality from pertussis infections."

This is why he urges parents to vaccinate their children against the condition, both to protect the child and to contribute towards herd immunity.

"[Herd immunity] is crucial for protecting vulnerable individuals who cannot be vaccinated, such as newborns too young to receive the vaccine and individuals with certain medical conditions," Dr Ambani says. "By ensuring high vaccination coverage rates in the population, we create a protective barrier against the spread of whooping cough, safeguarding the health of our communities."

To find out more about whooping cough, visit the NHS information page here. If you suspect you or your child may have whooping cough, make an appointment with your GP.