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Whooping Cough Epidemic in Northland Poses Risks for Babies

Dr Clair Mills – Medical Officer of Health

16 June 2013

Ongoing Whooping Cough Epidemic in Northland Poses Serious Risks for Babies

Whooping cough causes outbreaks in New Zealand every 3-5 years, partly as a result of historically low immunisation coverage. Whooping cough is a highly infectious bacterial infection spread by sneezing and coughing.

Dr Clair Mills, Northland DHB Medical Officer of Health, says that whooping cough poses serious risks to newborn babies and young infants.

“15% of all notified cases of whooping cough in Northland this year ended up in hospital, but for babies under the age of one this was 75% - three in every four of those babies affected. This is because when babies get whooping cough, they often turn blue or stop breathing because of the coughing, and have trouble feeding. There is really no treatment and some end up on respirators or can die.”

Northland has had 93 cases notified to Public Health this year, up to June 10, 2013. This is more than the total notified in 2012.

“However, we know there are probably 80-100 cases in the community for every one case that gets notified to Public Health, as many people with cough will not see their doctor or get tested,” said Dr Mills.

“We have several very young babies admitted to hospital recently. The best thing to prevent this happening and to protect your baby is to get a “booster” pertussis vaccination in the last part of pregnancy, which will boost your baby’s antibodies and offer them protection up until the time they get vaccinated themselves.”

“It is also critical that babies are vaccinated on time at 6 weeks, 3 and 5 months, so they are protected as soon as possible.”

“Vaccination for pregnant women against whooping cough is FREE from 28-38 weeks of pregnancy – I strongly recommend women discuss this with their midwife or doctor,” said Dr Mills.


What is whooping cough (pertussis)?

Whooping cough is a highly infectious bacterial infection spread by sneezing and coughing. It usually starts with a runny nose and mild fever, followed by cough. The cough can last weeks, and the classic “whoop” is only heard in about half of cases. It can cause severe bouts of coughing, especially in children, which may be accompanied by vomiting and a whooping sound. Adults often have more mild symptoms, and may not be aware they have it.

Can pertussis be prevented?

YES. There is a vaccine which is 84-88% effective in those who receive it.

Boostrix® is used for booster vaccination of adolescents and adults to protect against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. It is safe to use in pregnancy.

Newborn infants can gain some protection from whooping cough in the first 6 weeks of life before they begin their own immunisations, through their mother being vaccinated before birth, as this increases the mother’s antibody levels. Protective antibodies pass through the placenta to the baby, boosting his/her immunity.

Currently, women between 28-38 weeks of pregnancy are eligible for FREE Boostrix®. This vaccine should be repeated with each pregnancy during an outbreak of Pertussis.

It is also very important that babies get vaccinated on time, so they gain protection against whooping cough as early as possible. The first three vaccines are at 6 weeks, 3 months and 5 months of age. In Northland, late vaccination is unfortunately still common.


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