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Five babies reported dead after spike in whooping cough cases

Whooping cough claims the life of five infants, after the UK’s biggest outbreak in two decades

Five babies have been reported dead in England after developing whooping cough, according to new data published by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).

The agency has confirmed 2,793 cases of the cough in 2024, especially in babies under the age of three months, up from 858 cases and one death during the whole of 2023.

Dr Gayatri Amirthalingam, consultant epidemiologist at the UKHSA called this the UK’s biggest outbreak of whooping cough in two decades with very high case numbers.

She said: ‘What we are currently seeing is certainly higher than the 2016 peak, based on the projections so far in the first three months, and very much in line – and potentially even higher – than what we saw during our 2012 peak year, particularly in very young babies.

‘It is certainly a real concern, which is why we are trying to raise awareness – particularly among pregnant women and the parents of young children – that whooping cough is on the rise and it is really important that they take the opportunity to get vaccinated.’

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Whooping cough – or pertussis – is caused by a bacterium that is transmitted by coughing, sneezing or sharing the same breathing space as an infected person. Early indications include mild, cold-like symptoms, a low fever and occasional coughing. These usually last for one to two weeks, after which the coughing fits begin, which if severe, can cause vomiting or fractured ribs.

According to Dr Amirthalingam, vaccinations are the best defence against whooping cough. But UKSHA data shows a drop in vaccine uptake across the country, both among pregnant women and babies.

Uptake of maternal vaccines fell to an average of 59% in late 2023, with rates as low as 30% in north-east London. The number of two-year-olds who completed their six-in-one vaccinations as of September 2023 was 92.9 per cent, compared with 96.3 per cent in March 2014.

Responding to the latest figures and outbreak of whooping cough, NHS medical director, Professor Sir Stephen Powis urged families to ‘come forward to get the protection they need’.

‘If you are pregnant and have not been vaccinated yet, or your child is not up-to-date with whooping cough or other routine vaccinations, please contact your GP as soon as possible, and if you or your child show symptoms, ask for an urgent GP appointment or get help from NHS 111,’ he said.