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Biggest spike in whooping cough for 20 years leads to vaccine alert

Whooping cough cases are at a 20-year high in Northern Ireland according to the latest figures from the Public Health Agency.

The ailment, also known as pertussis, can be dangerous for young children and even fatal for babies under a year old.

The PHA said there have been 221 confirmed cases recorded up until September 30 this year, compared to just 15 in 2011.

It said the increase was in line with “sharp rises” in the UK as a whole, where cases are at a 20-year high with some deaths of young babies recorded this year.

The majority of those affected here are children, accounting for 137 of the confirmed cases between January and the end of last month.

Vaccinations are now being offered to pregnant women.

Babies are not usually vaccinated until they are at least two-months-old.

The main symptoms are severe coughing fits which, in babies and children, are accompanied by the characteristic “whoop” sound as the child gasps for breath after coughing.

The PHA urged pregnant women and the parents of young children to ensure their families' whooping cough vaccinations are fully up to date.

The agency said: “The increase in whooping cough incidents is in line with England, Wales and Scotland, where cases of the disease reported to the Health Protection Agency have also shown sharp rises.

“Increases in levels of the illness are seen every three to four years. But the numbers this year are the highest for about 20 years.”

Health Minister Edwin Poots, announced at the end of September that pregnant women would be offered the whooping cough vaccination to protect their newborn babies. PHA consultant Dr Richard Smithson said: “Newborn babies are likely to have little or no protection against whooping cough until they have been fully vaccinated themselves.

“The vaccination of pregnant mothers will help to protect children from birth until they are old enough to be vaccinated themselves, as antibodies passed from the pregnant mother to her unborn child should provide some protection to the baby in the first few weeks of life.”

The vaccines are being offered by GPs to expectant mothers who are 28 weeks pregnant or more.


  • The classic signs of whooping cough are a paroxysmal cough, inspiratory whoop and vomiting after coughing. The violent cough can cause internal injuries.
  • The incubation period for whooping cough is typically seven to 10 days in infants or young children, after which there are usually mild respiratory symptoms, mild coughing, sneezing or a runny nose.
  • After one to two weeks, the coughing classically develops into uncontrollable fits, each with five to 10 forceful coughs, followed by a high-pitched “whoop” sound in younger children, or a gasping sound in older children, as the patient struggles to breathe in afterwards (paroxysmal stage).

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