Cases of whooping cough have risen sharply, new figures for England and Wales reveal, with more and more young babies affected by the disease.
There have already been 2,466 cases reported so far this year – more than double the amount for the whole of 2011, when 1,118 cases were recorded.
And there were 186 reported cases in infants under three months, compared to 84 in 2008.
Now experts are considering whether to offer booster jabs for teenagers and vaccinations to pregnant women, because the rise is affecting increasingly young babies who are most at risk of serious illness and even death.
The main symptom of whooping cough is a hacking cough, often followed by a sharp intake of breath that sounds like a “whoop”. It is highly contagious and other symptoms include a runny nose, raised temperature, severe coughing fits and vomiting after coughing. It can be treated with antibiotics.
The figures are released today by the Health Protection Agency and follow reports of a steep rise for the first three months of this year. That pattern appears to have continued for the first half of 2012. The increase covers all regions, although schools and healthcare settings tend to have the worst outbreaks.
While whooping cough, or pertussis, is a cyclical illness with increases occurring every three or four years, experts are concerned that the current surge outstrips expectation.
The last ‘peak’ was in 2008 when 421 cases were reported between January and June – as compared to the 2,566 in the equivalent period this year.
Previously, the increases had tended to affect teenagers and adults between the ages of 15 and 40 but the rise now extends to the very young.
Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at the HPA, said: “The HPA is very concerned about the ongoing increase in cases and we are working closely with the Department of Health’s Joint Committee of Vaccination and Immunisation to consider the most effective ways to tackle the ongoing outbreak.
“The JCVI is reviewing a number of options including the introduction of a booster dose in teenagers and offering whooping cough vaccination to pregnant women.”
At the June meeting of the JCVI, committee members recommended whooping cough vaccination for healthcare workers working with young babies to protect them against the infection and to stop the risk of them passing the infection on to their very young patients.
Dr Ramsay added: “We welcome the JCVI review of the current vaccination recommendations. In the meantime we are actively reviewing our cases to see what interventions could have the quickest impact on the spread.
“Whooping cough can spread easily to close contacts such as household members.”
She said vaccination was the most effective way to protect against the infection and added that uptake of the vaccine in the UK is “very good”. She said it is vital, however, that parents ensure their children are vaccinated at the earliest opportunity.
Dr Ramsay added: “Whooping cough can be a very serious illness, especially in the very young.”
It is not clear why cases are on the increase although there is some suggestion that as more teenagers and adults have been infected there is a greater risk of them passing the disease on to the very young.
Anyone showing signs and symptoms should visit their GP.