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According to figures published by the Health Protection Agency (HPA) today, 1,322 cases of whooping cough (pertussis) were reported in England and Wales in September 2012, bringing the total number of cases so far this year to 6,121*.

The total number of cases so far in 2012 (up to end of September) is more than five times higher than the annual total number of cases reported in 2011 (1,118) and almost seven times higher than the total in 2008 (902) – the last ‘peak’ year before this current outbreak. In September there was one pertussis-related death in an infants under three months of age, bringing the total number of deaths in this age group so far this year to ten.

At the end of September, the Department of Health announced that pregnant women would be offered the whooping cough vaccination to protect their newborn babies, who are not usually vaccinated until between two and four months. The introduction of the vaccine programme in pregnant women will help to boost the short term immunity passed on by women to their babies while they are still in the womb.

Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at the HPA, said: “We have been very concerned about the continuing increase in whooping cough cases and related deaths and welcome the urgent action recently taken by the Department of Health to introduce a vaccine for pregnant women.

“The introduction of a vaccine for pregnant women will not have an immediate impact on serious infection in infants so vigilance remains important. Working with the Department of Health we will continue to regularly monitor figures to evaluate the success of the programme. 

“All parents should ensure their children are vaccinated against whooping cough on time, even babies of women who’ve had the vaccine in pregnancy – this is to continue their baby’s protection through childhood. Parents should also be alert to the signs and symptoms of whooping cough – which include severe coughing fits accompanied by the characteristic “whoop” sound in young children but as a prolonged cough in older children or adults. It is also advisable to keep babies away from older siblings or adults who have the infection.”

Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, affects all ages. Young infants are at highest risk of severe complications and death from whooping cough as babies do not complete vaccination until they are around four months old. In older children and adults whooping cough can be an unpleasant illness but it does not usually lead to serious complications. Whooping cough is a highly infectious bacterial disease which spreads when a person with the infection coughs and sheds the bacteria which is then inhaled by another person.

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