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When can pregnant women get the whooping cough vaccine and how does it protect babies from deadly infection?

Newborn babies are at 'serious risk' of hospitalisation, says the UK Health Security Agency, because increasing numbers of pregnant women aren't getting a whopping cough vaccine.

Uptake is now at a seven year low with only around 60 per cent of patients entitled to a jab accepting the offer, data from UK HSA shows.

There has been a slow down in the number of pregnant women getting a vaccine. Image: iStock.
There has been a slow down in the number of pregnant women getting a vaccine. Image: iStock.

Whopping cough can be a serious, life threatening disease in young babies that can cause pneumonia, brain damage and even death.

So what is whooping cough, when can new mothers get the vaccine and how does it protect their babies?

What is whopping cough?

Whooping cough – also sometimes called pertussis – is a highly contagious bacterial infection of the lungs and airways.

It is spread through the droplets of coughs or sneezes of someone with the infection.

The first symptoms of whooping cough are very similar to those of a cold – such as a runny nose, red and watery eyes, a sore throat, and a slightly raised temperature.

But then after about a week, intense and repeated coughing bouts can start and these can last for two to three months. The name derives from the 'whoop' noise people can make as they try and catch their breath between rounds of coughing.

Babies are at serious risk if they catch whooping cough. Image: iStock.
Babies are at serious risk if they catch whooping cough. Image: iStock.

Who is most at risk?

Whooping cough, while serious and frustrating for any patient, can make babies and young children in particular very ill. Those under six months of age are most at risk of complications brought on by the infection.

The strain of constant coughing can causes faces to become very red and even lead to some slight bleeding under the skin or in the eyes.

But in young children they can sometimes briefly turn blue, says the NHS, if they are having trouble breathing between their intense coughing bouts.

In very young babies, the persistent cough may not be quite as noticeable, but there may too be brief periods where they too stop breathing.

Alongside breathing difficulties – dehydration, weight loss, pneumonia, kidney problems and even brain damage caused by a lack of oxygen can be among the complications that the very young are at risk of developing.

What is the whopping cough vaccine?

The whooping cough – or pertussis – vaccine was first introduced for pregnant women in the UK in 2012 in response to climbing rates of whooping cough circulating in the UK.

It is given to pregnant women to help protect their babies against whooping cough from birth and during their first weeks of life because the immunity a women acquires from the vaccine is then passed to the baby through the placenta.

Therefore it is important that women are vaccinated with every pregnancy – and do not just accept their immunisation with only their first baby.

The foetus can be protected via immunity passed through the placenta. Image: Stock photo.
The foetus can be protected via immunity passed through the placenta. Image: Stock photo.

When can you get it?

The vaccine is available on the NHS for all expectant mothers from 16 weeks with many hospitals offering immunisation after the second 20 week scan.

While it is recommended that women take the vaccine early in their pregnancy – ideally before 32 weeks – anyone who has missed it can get the injection right up until they go into labour. However it is thought to be less effective after 38 weeks because there is less time for immunity to develop and be passed from mother to baby.

Vaccinating mothers provides newborn babies with protection against whopping cough to see them through their first few weeks of life.

Babies then receive further protection from around eight weeks when they receive their first set of routine immunisations from the NHS.

Giving women the jab can protect their unborn child
Giving women the jab can protect their unborn child

Are there any risks to the baby from the vaccine?

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) in the UK completed a large study into the safety of the vaccine in pregnancy in 2014.

This study included nearly 18,000 vaccinated women and, says the Government, it found no risks to pregnancy associated with the vaccine and rates of normal, healthy births were no different to those in unvaccinated women.

Similar vaccines, says the NHS, are also routinely offered in the US for pregnant women and there too no risks to the foetus have been found.

Are there any side effects?

Mild side effects can include swelling, redness or some tenderness where the vaccine is given in your arm, says the NHS. But more serious side effects, says the UK Health Security Agency, are extremely rare.

Pregnant women can get the jab on the NHS
Pregnant women can get the jab on the NHS

What does the latest data tell us?

The latest UK Health Security Agency data shows that vaccine uptake has dropped to its lowest level in seven years.

Statistics for 2022 show an average uptake across England of 61.5 per cent, a decrease of 3.9 per cent since 2021 and 7.6 per cent from 2020. Coverage in London is particularly low at 41.4 per cent.

Yet a study, also published last year, found the vaccine provided 89 per cent protection against hospitalisation and 97 per cent protection against death from whooping cough in babies born to vaccinated mothers.

Dr Gayatri Amirthalingam, consultant epidemiologist at UKHSA, said: "The whooping cough vaccination programme for pregnant women has been hugely successful in protecting newborn babies in the first weeks of life from serious disease and hospitalisation.

"Whooping cough can be very serious for young babies, particularly under six months, and can lead to pneumonia, permanent brain damage and even death. That’s why it’s so important that all expectant mothers get the vaccine at the recommended time from 20 weeks, to give their babies the best protection from this serious and highly contagious disease.

"If you aren’t sure whether you’ve had the vaccine, or would like further information, speak to your GP or midwife."

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