Health leaders issue urgent advice as cases of whooping cough rise

on 07 June 2024

The Royal College of Midwives (RCM), alongside The Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (RCOG), and the Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) are today issuing advice in a joint statement for parents, carers and healthcare professionals on whooping cough, otherwise known as pertussis.

The latest available data from the UK Health Security Agency shows that confirmed cases of whooping cough in England have spiked, with the South of England being a hotspot. The same trend has been noted in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as shown by data from Public Health Scotland, Public Health Wales and the Public Health Agency. The high numbers of cases, which are likely a result of a lower uptake of vaccinations, poses a risk to public health and especially to vulnerable or unvaccinated patients.

Accordingly, the joint statement from the Royal Medical Colleges details the symptoms which parents or carers should look out for in their children, and themselves, as well as the precautions and treatments they can take to minimise the risk of serious complications.

Whooping cough can affect babies, children and adults. It is spread in the droplets of the coughs or sneezes of someone with the infection. It starts like many viral illnesses with cold-like symptoms: a runny nose and coughing spasms with worsening severity, sometimes worse at night, or with a gasping sound ‘whoop’ and occasionally difficulty in breathing. Call 999 or go to A&E if your or your child’s lips, tongue, face or skin suddenly turn blue or grey (on black or brown skin this may be easier to see on the palms of the hands or the soles of the feet).

The key message for parents or carers is to check their children’s vaccination record to ensure it is up to date - this should be recorded in your child’s “red book”. Vaccination is the only effective means to protect young babies and children from whooping cough, and all parents should ensure that their child, or children have been protected against the condition. 

There are a range of options to access the vaccine. All pregnant women will be offered the pertussis vaccine during every pregnancy, usually between 16 and 32 weeks of their pregnancy, helping to protect their baby the first few weeks of its life until they are old enough to have the vaccine at 8 weeks of age.

In infancy, all children are given three doses of the 6-in-1 vaccine at 8, 12 and 16 weeks of age to protect against whooping cough. If you, or a member of your family, does exhibit symptoms of whooping cough - especially a heavy wheezing cough that disrupts sleep, or a change in the colour of the face - then seek medical assistance. Whooping cough can be treated with antibiotics, and if severe, may require hospital admission.

The condition is preventable, so this outbreak highlights the paramount importance of engaging with vaccination programmes. The falling rates of engagement with routine vaccination programmes is a major public health concern and the joint statement also calls on the swift implementation of the NHS Vaccination Strategy by the government to encourage the prioritisation of vaccine coverage.

Commenting, Clare Livingstone Professional Policy Advisor at the RCM, said: “We are urging all pregnant women to protect their baby from whooping cough by getting vaccinated. The pertussis vaccine will be offered to women between week 16 and 32 of their pregnancy. The immunity you get from the vaccine will pass to your baby through the placenta and provide passive protection for them until they are old enough to be routinely vaccinated against whooping cough at 8 weeks old. It’s also not too late to have the vaccine if you have missed the window, women can still have this vaccine right up until they go into labour. You can also have the vaccine at the same time as the flu jab. The RCM has also called on all midwives to discuss this vital vaccine with the women in their care as part of their conversations about all vaccines that are recommended during pregnancy. If you have any concerns about getting this vaccine, please discuss them with your midwife who is best placed to share the latest guidance and advice.”

Professor Kamila Hawthorne, Chair of the Royal College of GPs said: “Having whooping cough is, for most people, an unpleasant experience, but for some it can be far more serious. More vulnerable patients who may have a weakened immune system or are very young or elderly, can experience highly distressing symptoms.

“However, this can be avoided. Vaccinations are an effective form of protection, so we would urge all parents to check that their children's vaccinations are up to date, and if they're not, to make an appointment at their GP surgery as soon as possible. This outbreak, and the spike in measles cases at the start of 2024, have brought to the fore the dangers of vaccine complacency and hesitancy, and the importance of community outreach in addressing concerns and highlighting the effectiveness and safety of vaccinations.”

Dr Ranee Thakar, President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said: “Whooping cough can cause serious health problems for young babies, making the recent increase in cases particularly concerning. Vaccination is the best defence against whooping cough. When you have a whooping cough vaccine in pregnancy your body produces antibodies to protect against whooping cough. These antibodies pass to the baby through the placenta helping to safeguard your baby during the first few weeks of life, until they can be vaccinated at eight weeks old. If you have any questions or concerns please consult your obstetrician or midwife.” 

Professor Steve Turner, President of Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: “Whooping cough affects all ages, and can be life-threatening in young infants.  The only way to protect us from whooping cough is to get vaccinated.  The vaccine gives good protection after just two weeks.  The vaccine is given as part of the usual baby and child vaccination schedule.  It is also available to pregnant mothers to stop them from getting whooping cough, and also to provide their baby with protection after they are born until they get their vaccines.                                                                                                                          

“If you are pregnant and have not been vaccinated yet, or if you’re not sure if your child is up-to-date with whooping cough or other routine vaccinations, please contact your GP as soon as possible.”