Whooping cough: why is it back?

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How to recognise it, how to treat it, and why are numbers increasing…

In the first quarter of this year, five babies died of whooping cough in England, which is a pretty shocking statistic to hear in 2024. According to recorded numbers, between January and March 2024 there were 2,793 cases of whooping cough in England. This is a stark comparison to the total number of 858 cases in England in all of 2023. But why is whooping cough back?

As whooping cough remains a significant public health concern, what symptoms should you look for, how is it treated, and why are cases so high in 2024?

What is whooping cough?

Also called pertussis or the ‘100-day cough’, whooping cough is a bacterial infection which affects the lungs and breathing tubes.

Thorrun Govind, TV pharmacist and health expert says, “Whooping cough is caused by a type of bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, germ-laden droplets are sprayed into the air and breathed into the lungs by those nearby. It is highly contagious, given how easily it is spread.”

Understanding symptoms and treatments

The early signs are similar to a cold and may include a sore throat and a runny nose. However, after about a week, it can develop into coughing bouts, often worse at night and lasting for a few minutes. It is more dangerous in babies and young children as they may have difficulty breathing, leading to severe coughing fits that can last for weeks.

Dr Hana Patel, an NHS GP, says whooping cough causes repeated coughing bouts that can last for two to three months or more. And can make babies and young children very ill.

…watch out for symptoms similar to a cold, and a high temperature is uncommon. “After about a week, coughing bouts that last for a few minutes and are worse at night are likely…”

Govind explains that parents should watch out for symptoms similar to a cold, and a high temperature is uncommon. “After about a week, coughing bouts that last for a few minutes and are worse at night are likely. Those affected may make a ‘whoop’ sound, which is a gasp for breath between coughs. However, young babies and some adults may not whoop in this manner.”

In severe cases, Govind explains that individuals with whooping cough, particularly young infants, can have difficulty breathing after a coughing bout. And may turn blue or grey. Babies under six months have an increased chance of dehydration, breathing difficulties, pneumonia and seizures.

…avoid cough medicines, as they won’t work.

NHS guidelines confirm that whooping cough treatment will depend on your age and how long you’ve had the infection. Antibiotics may be given if the cough is diagnosed within three weeks to prevent it from spreading. And hospital treatment may be required for babies under six months old.

They suggest plenty of rest and fluids, paracetamol or ibuprofen for those 16 and over. Also, avoid cough medicines, as they won’t work.

Why are cases so high?

Whooping cough tends to peak every few years. It’s also been impacted by the COVID pandemic and reduced immunity. According to the UK government, the last cyclical increase occurred in 2016.

Patel explains that “Whooping cough is a disease that regularly peaks every three to five years. We are, unfortunately, seeing increasing rates of whooping cough at present. This follows a prolonged period of very low case numbers due to restrictions and reduced social mixing patterns during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Vaccination uptake has decreased

In the UK, the whooping cough vaccine is given as part of the 6-in-1 vaccine for babies at eight, 12, and 16 weeks. And also as part of the 4-in-1 preschool boosters for children aged three years and four months.

Vaccinations can also be given to pregnant women, ideally between 16 and 32 weeks. The maternal pertussis vaccination was introduced in 2012. Since then, there have been 26 deaths in infants, and 21 of the mothers of these babies were not vaccinated in pregnancy.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) confirms that vaccine uptake in pregnant women has declined by about 15 per cent since 2016/7. This is especially prevalent in some areas of London, where only 25 per cent of pregnant women have had the vaccination. They added that the vaccine uptake for children has also reduced in the last decade. And confirmed the vaccination is safe and effective.

The RCPCH says, “Although an unpleasant disease at any age, it’s most serious in very young babies. As the routine vaccine schedule for England starts at 8 weeks with doses at 12 and 26 weeks, this is too late to give babies protection in the early, crucial months.”

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About Sarah Haselwood
Sarah Haselwood is a freelance writer and journalist, who is passionate about travel, health and wellness, and HR topics. She dabbles in creative writing and is trying to write a novel.

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