Whooping cough (scientific name pertussis) is a respiratory infection caused by the bacteria Bordetella Pertussis and occurs worldwide. This infection is less common than it used to be because of immunisation programs and improved standard of living. Whooping cough most commonly occurs in children under two years of age, with up to 70% of unimmunised children eventually developing the infection. The illness is characterised by three stages:
1. The first stage lasts 7-14 days and symptoms may be mild (runny nose, conjunctivitis and a dry cough);
2. In the second stage there may be frequent and often severe coughing ‘fits’, this stage lasts about four weeks;
3. In the last stage, the cough slowly becomes less severe and less frequent.
Antibiotic treatment may reduce the severity of the cough, but almost all young children under 6 months of age require hospital admission. Whooping cough may be life threatening to newborn babies and complications of the disease include lack of oxygen to the brain leading to brain damage and possibly even death.
Newborn babies will receive their first whooping cough vaccination at 8 weeks of age. They are at greatest risk of infection until they have had at least 2 doses of the vaccine (the second is given at 4 months). Prior to this time they depend on those around them to protect them – for this reason it is recommended to vaccinate parents and carers. Whooping cough vaccination is safe in pregnancy and having the vaccination in the third trimester (between 27 and 36 weeks gestation) allows passage of antibodies to the baby through the placenta therefore allowing protection to the baby from birth onwards. Breast feeding will allow important antibodies to be passed onto the baby for further protection until the baby is immunised and develops his or her own immune system.