The Public Health Agency (PHA) is reminding parents of the importance of their children completing the childhood immunisation programme to help prevent serious disease and illness following a reported increase of whooping cough (pertussis) cases in Northern Ireland. Similar increases have been reported in England, Wales and Scotland.
While uptake levels for childhood vaccines are very high in Northern Ireland there has been a rise in the number of whopping cough cases reported here. By the end of March this year there were 27 confirmed cases. This compares with only 13 confirmed cases in the whole of last year. The fact that cases are being reported means that there is no room for complacency as the disease is still present. Quite a few of the cases are in children too young to be vaccinated, therefore the PHA wants to urge parents to try to protect young babies in particular from coming into contact with people with coughs and to get children vaccinated on time from two months of age, so that children are protected as early as possible.
Dr Richard Smithson, Consultant in Health Protection, PHA, said: “Vaccination is the most important control measure in preventing this disease and children are offered the whooping cough vaccine at two, three and four months of age as part of the routine childhood vaccination programme.
“The vaccine for whooping cough is included in a jab that also protects against diphtheria, polio, Haemophilus influenza type B - a cause of meningitis - and tetanus.
“Children should receive a booster at around three and a half to four years of age, before they start school. It is important that children receive all these doses so that they can build up and keep high levels of immunity to the disease.”
Pertussis (whooping cough) is a disease that can cause long bouts of coughing and choking which can make it hard to breathe. It is accompanied by the characteristic ‘whoop’ sound as the child gasps for breath after coughing. It can last for up to 10 weeks and can be very serious for young children, and even fatal for babies under one year old. Whilst these numbers are up they are still very small compared with what they would be without vaccination. Before the pertussis vaccine was introduced, up to 3,500 cases of the disease were reported each year in Northern Ireland, and there would have been a significant number of deaths each year, so the current numbers show the dramatic benefits of vaccination.
The infection can be treated with a course of antibiotics, but young infants may need hospital care due to the risk of severe complications.
Dr Smithson continued: “Whooping can be very unpleasant and is highly infectious so it can spread quickly amongst people who have not been vaccinated.
“Anyone showing signs and symptoms – which include severe coughing fits accompanied by the characteristic ‘whoop’ sound in young children, or a prolonged cough in older children and adults – should visit their GP as soon as possible. Although the vaccine gives very good protection, no vaccine is 100% effective and there is still a small risk even if your child has been vaccinated – especially if they have had only one or two doses and not the full course. So if you think your child may have whooping cough even though they have had the vaccine you should still arrange for them to see their GP.
“Northern Ireland has uptake rates of over 98% for the primary vaccines by two years of age, which is an excellent achievement, but I urge the small remainder of parents whose children aren’t fully vaccinated to please ensure that they get all the recommended vaccines as soon as possible. It is never too late to get the vaccines -just speak to your GP or health visitor to arrange it.”
Contact the PHA press office on 028 9055 3663