20 cases of whooping cough suspected in Central Bedfordshire as health chiefs warn of growing epidemic

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A drop in the vaccination rates for whooping cough in Central Bedfordshire could be putting babies at risk.

And 20 children in the borough are suspected of contracting the potentially deadly disease up until April 21, the latest available figures show. GPs nationally reported 9,575 suspected cases of whooping cough to the UKHSA.

Nationally five babies have died of the disease in the past three months. Figures from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) shows cases of whooping cough continue to increase with 1,319 cases confirmed in March. This follows 556 cases in January and 918 in February, bringing the total number of cases in 2024 to 2,793.

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A leading health expert has warned more babies will die if vaccination rates across the country do not rise.

Parents are being urged to have their children vaccinated - Photo Gareth FullerParents are being urged to have their children vaccinated - Photo Gareth Fuller
Parents are being urged to have their children vaccinated - Photo Gareth Fuller

UKHSA figures show 92.3 per cent of babies in Central Bedfordshire had received their six-in-one vaccine by their first birthday, which provides immunisation against a range of diseases including whooping cough.

The World Health Organisation says 95 per cent of children should be vaccinated against preventable diseases such as whooping cough.

Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, consultant paediatrician and chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme under-vaccination is putting "the most vulnerable – those who are too young to have been vaccinated – at greatest risk."

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He said the "only thing we can actually do" about rising cases is to ensure higher vaccination rates.

He warned: "The troubling thing is that if we continue to have high rates of spread and low rates of vaccination, there will be more babies severely affected and sadly there will be more deaths."

Not all the suspected cases will be confirmed as whooping cough. The UKHSA, which does not release local data, said there were 2,793 confirmed cases in England in the three months to March.

That compares to just 858 cases for the whole of 2023, while in March alone, some 1,319 cases were reported, according to the provisional data.

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Pregnant women can also receive a whooping cough vaccine, though just 59.3 per cent in England did between October and December 2023. This was down almost 16 per cent on the same quarter in 2016-17.

Sir Andrew said: "Very importantly, for this very vulnerable group, those who are too young to be vaccinated, is the vaccination rates in pregnant women.

"Very worryingly, those have fallen from a peak of about 75 per cent of women being vaccinated during pregnancy to under 60 per cent today, and that’s what puts these very young infants at particular risk."

Professor Sir Stephen Powis, national medical director for the NHS in England, said: "With cases of whooping cough continuing to rise sharply across the country, and today’s figures sadly showing five infant deaths, it is vital that families come forward to get the protection they need.

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"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."

Whooping cough, clinically known as pertussis, is a bacterial infection which affects the lungs. The first signs of infection are similar to a cold, such as a runny nose and sore throat, but after about a week, the infection can develop into coughing bouts that last for a few minutes and are typically worse at night. Young babies may also make a distinctive ‘whoop’ or have difficulty breathing after a bout of coughing, though not all babies make this noise which means whooping cough can be hard to recognise.

UKHSA says if anyone in your family is diagnosed with whooping cough, it’s important they stay at home and do not go into work, school or nursery until 48 hours after starting antibiotics, or 3 weeks after symptoms start if they have not had antibiotics. This helps to prevent the spread of infection, especially to vulnerable groups, including infants. However, vaccination remains the best protection for babies and children.