This site is intended for health professionals only

Whooping cough vaccination programme advised to continue

The joint committee on vaccination and immunisation (JCIV) have advised the Department of Health (DH) to continue with their routine whooping cough vaccination programme in pregnant women for a further five years.

This comes after both Public Health England (PHE) and Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) published research showing the high levels of safety and efficacy of the vaccine. 

Vaccinating pregnant women means antibodies in the bloodstream are passed onto the unborn baby through the placenta, protecting the baby until their first immunisation at 2 months old.

Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Professor John Watson said: “Babies too young to start their vaccinations are at greatest risk from whooping cough. It's an extremely distressing illness that can lead to young babies being admitted to hospital and can potentially be fatal. The JCVI's advice will be welcomed by families and we will work with NHS England to ensure the programme continues to be offered to mums-to-be.”

Several infant deaths led to the DH announcing a temporary programme of routine vaccines back in October 2012.

PHE's publication released in the lancet infectious diseases shows that inoculating women whilst pregnant is highly effective, with a 91% reduced risk of becoming ill with the potentially-fatal disease, when compared with babies whose mothers were not immunised.

Additionally, largest study on safety to date undertaken by the MHRA was published in the British Medical Journal and involved a pool of 18,000 vaccinated from the clinical practice research data link (CPRD).

The data showed no evidence of risk from to the developing baby or pregnancy, the rates of normal healthy births similar to the control group (unvaccinated women).

Lead author of the MHRA study, Dr Katherine Donegan said: ““Coupled with the new evidence from Public Health England on the effectiveness of the vaccine, our research should provide further reassurance on the safety and benefits of the vaccine for expectant mothers and healthcare professionals who offer the vaccine.”

Latest data from PHE shows a decline in the overall number of cases of the illness since October 2012, with the greatest decrease in whooping cough incidents seen in infants under 6 months old.

In the 2012 there were 14 infant deaths related to whooping cough prior to the vaccination programme.

Eight deaths have been reported in 2013 and 2014 so far, with seven of the eight mothers whose babies died being unvaccinated.

PHE's head of immunisation, Dr Mary Ramsay said: “We welcome JCVI's advice that the vaccination programme for pregnant women is continued, particularly while whooping cough continues to circulate at elevated levels. It has been highly effective at preventing disease, and deaths in young babies."

“The latest figures show that around 60% of pregnant women have received the whooping cough vaccination, which is a testament to the health professionals implementing this programme. However, these infant deaths reminds us how important it is that every pregnant woman is informed about the benefits of the vaccine, and given the opportunity to receive it at the right time so their babies are protected from birth.”

Although the number of cases has fallen since 2012, the numbers still remain high compared with 2011 and Ramsay suggests inoculation must continue in order to ensure the infection falls to “background levels” once again.

The jab is ideally administered between 28 and 32 weeks, although it can be given as “up to 38 weeks”, according to Ramsay

Although whooping cough affects all ages, young infants are the ones at highest risk of serious complications and death, whilst adults it is usually just an unpleasant illness and does not often lead to serious complications

Ramsay said: “Parents should also be alert to the signs and symptoms of whooping cough - which include severe coughing fits which may be accompanied by difficulty breathing (or pauses in breathing in young infants) or vomiting after coughing and the characteristic “whoop” sound in young children. In older children or adults it may present simply as a prolonged cough.” 

“Parents must also ensure their children are vaccinated against whooping cough on time, even babies of women who've had the vaccine in pregnancy - this is to provide continued protection through childhood.”