Due to begin next week, the programme aims to boost the short-term immunity passed on by pregnant women to protect their newborn babies - who normally cannot be vaccinated until they are two months old.
The move comes as the latest figures for England and Wales, released today by the Health Protection Agency, show a large increase in cases in young infants. The figures show:
- In the first eight months of this year 302 cases were reported in infants under 12 weeks of age - more than double the 115 cases reported in the same period in 2011;
- There were nine deaths of young children in the same period - up from seven in the whole of 2011; and
- From January to August 2012, 4,791 cases in all ages were reported - three times more than the whole of 2011 which saw 1118 cases.
The decision to introduce the temporary programme was made after the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation - the Government’s independent vaccine experts - reviewed the available evidence and agreed that the vaccine should be offered to the approximate 650,000 women a year who are between 28 and 38 weeks of pregnancy.
The vaccine will be offered to pregnant women during routine antenatal appointments with a nurse, midwife or GP.
Even if women have previously been immunised they will be encouraged to be vaccinated again to boost their immunity, as it helps protect their babies before they can start their own immunisations.
The temporary programme will start next week and will be monitored by the Health Protection Agency (HPA) and Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies said:
Whooping cough is highly contagious and newborns are particularly vulnerable. Nine infants have died as a result of whooping cough this year and there have been 302 cases of the disease in children under three months old. It’s vital that babies are protected from the day they are born - that’s why we are offering the vaccine to all pregnant women.
Professor David Salisbury, Director of Immunisation said:
Over the last year we have seen a large rise in the number of whooping cough cases with the most serious cases being in children too young to be protected by routine vaccinations. The vaccine that we are offering to pregnant women has been recommended by experts and a similar vaccine is already given to pregnant women in the US. If you are pregnant, getting vaccinated is the best way you can protect your baby against whooping cough.
Dr Mary Ramsay, Head of Immunisation at the HPA, said:
We have been very concerned about the continuing increase in whooping cough cases and related deaths. We welcome the urgent measure from the Department of Health to minimise the harm from whooping cough, particularly in young infants, and we encourage all pregnant women to ensure they receive the vaccination to give their baby the best protection against whooping cough.
It’s also important we continue to remind all parents to ensure their children are vaccinated against whooping cough to continue their protection through childhood. Parents should also be alert to the signs and symptoms - which include severe coughing fits accompanied by the characteristic “whoop” sound in young children but as a prolonged cough in older children or adults. It is also advisable to keep their babies away from older siblings or adults who have the infection.
Notes to Editors
All children are already vaccinated against the infection when they are a few months old, as part of the Childhood Immunisation Programme. The new programme will mean that newborns are given protection through their mother until the main vaccination programme begins two-three months after birth.
The vaccine, Repevax, is similar to one currently used in the US and protects against whooping cough, diphtheria, tetanus and polio.
There is experience from the US that shows that this type of vaccine can be given to pregnant women. The JCVI had no concerns about the safety of this vaccine for pregnant women and their babies.
Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, can be a serious illness, especially in the very young.
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.
Very young children have the highest risk of severe complications and death.
Whooping cough in older people can be an unpleasant illness, but does not usually lead to serious complications.
The infection can be treated with a course of antibiotics to prevent the infection spreading further but young infants may need hospital care due to the risk of severe complications.