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Whooping cough: What’s behind the rise in cases and deaths in England?

BMJ 2024; 385 doi: (Published 17 May 2024) Cite this as: BMJ 2024;385:q1118
  1. Jacqui Wise
  1. Kent

Five infants died of whooping cough in England in the first three months of 2024. As rates of the disease continue to rise, Jacqui Wise answers some key questions

Why did the babies die?

Young infants are at the highest risk of severe complications and death from whooping cough, a respiratory disease caused by Bordetella pertussis bacteria. Pertussis is included in the 6-in-1 combined vaccine given at 8, 12, and 16 weeks of age. The five babies who died this year were, however, all under 3 months old. Vaccination in pregnancy, which has been used routinely in the UK since 2012, is key to passively protect babies before they can be directly protected by the infant vaccination programme. Adam Finn, professor of paediatrics at the University of Bristol, said, “Receiving a whooping cough vaccine in pregnancy is an effective way to protect newborns from the disease which is most dangerous in the early weeks and months of life. Babies will get protection from receiving vaccines themselves, but this is only fully in place when they are about 5-6 months old.” The high rates of pertussis circulating at the moment mean that babies are more likely to become infected. In 2024 there were 1319 confirmed cases in the UK in March, 918 in February, and 556 in January.1 This brings the …

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