For the first time pregnant women in the UK will be offered whooping cough vaccinations to protect their unborn babies following a rise in the number of deaths among young infants.
Traditionally, newborn babies cannot be vaccinated against the disease until they are two months old.
The £10m temporary programme, which will begin on Monday 1 October 2012, will be “mainly” administered in general practice, by GPs, midwives and practice nurses.
It is estimated around 650,000 women who are between 28 and 38 weeks of pregnancy will be included in the vaccination programme every year.
In vaccinating a mother-to-be, it is expected her own immunity will receive a “boost” so that the antibodies she makes will be actively transported across the placenta into the baby.
Data from the Health Protection Agency (HPA) shows ten babies have already died this year from whooping cough, a number that is higher than any other whole year during the past decade.
Cases of the disease have been steadily rising during the past two years. In the first eight months of 2012, 4,791 cases of whooping cough were reported – three times the number reported in 2011.
The biggest rise in cases has been in newborn babies, with many of them too young to be vaccinated against whooping cough directly.
302 cases were found in infants under 12 weeks of age – more than double the 115 cases reported in the same period in 2011.
Dr Mary Ramsay, Head of Immunisation at the HPA, was at a loss to explain the reasons behind the rise in cases of whooping cough but said the US, Canada and Australia are among other developed countries that are also seeing high instances of the disease in recent years.
Currently administered to children as part of their pre-school booster, Repevax by pharmaceutical company Sanofi Pasteur has been enlisted as the vaccine of choice for the programme.
Professor David Salisbury, Director of Immunisation at the DH, claimed any adverse reactions from the vaccine are “local and transitory” and said vaccine experts on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) – who has backed the move – “have no concerns about the use of the vaccine at any stage in pregnancy”.
Prof Salisbury also said the British Medical Association’s GP Committee and the Royal College of GPs have lent their support to the programme after agreeing payment in the order of £7.60 for every vaccine.
“The administration of the vaccine itself is a matter of seconds so I do not see that as being burdensome for general practice staff,” said Prof Salisbury.
“But yes GPs, midwives and nurses will have to set time aside to talk to their pregnant patients and explain the programme. It is something that needs to be done.
“The idea that there is a balance between risk and benefit for the pregnant woman is wrong. There is a clear benefit here and no evidence of risk.
While the vaccine will be offered to pregnant women during routine antenatal appointments with a nurse, midwife or GP, Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies said she expects practice staff to actively chase those women eligible for the vaccine to ensure their newborn babies are protected.
The programme has also received the backing of the Royal College of Midwives and the Royal College of Nursing.
“Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent infection and this programme to reduce infant morbidity and mortality is to be welcomed,” said Dr Peter Carter, Chief Executive & General Secretary of the RCN.
“We know that there has been a recent rise in the number of babies and infants suffering and dying from whooping cough, and we support the Department of Health in this initiative. “Given the speed and scale of this programme, it needs to be appropriately planned, taking into account the capacity and capability of those healthcare workers who will carry out the vaccinations.”
No time limit has been placed on the whooping cough vaccination programme. It is due to run indefinitely with constant monitoring by the HPA and Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
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