SCOTTISH health chiefs last night urged parents to get their babies vaccinated against whooping cough as the worst outbreak of the infection in a generation swept the country.
The call came as figures revealed an unprecedented rise in cases of the illness which can be life-threatening in young children.
So far this year, 1,602 cases have been confirmed in Scotland compared to just 95 for the same time period in 2011, the highest rates for almost three decades.
Almost one in ten of the cases, 128, is in infants under the age of one and 70 per cent of them are under the age of three months.
There have been no deaths in Scotland so far this year, but doctors say they can not rule out this happening if the bacteria continues to spread over the winter months.
Thirteen newborn babies have died from the highly contagious illness in England and Wales this year, including three in October, the Department of Health confirmed yesterday.
Dr Alison Smith-Palmer, from Health Protection Scotland, said health boards across the country had been told to be extra vigilant.
She said: “We have noted an increase in reports of whooping cough this year and we are working with boards across NHS Scotland to manage this increase in cases.
“Cases of whooping cough tend to increase every three or four years, but the number of cases in Scotland this year is the highest number since the 1980s.”
The latest figures show Scotland has higher rates of the illness than other parts of the UK.
There are 7,728 confirmed cases in England and Wales which has a combined population of around 53 million people, compared with the 1,602 in Scotland which has just over five million inhabitants. In Northern Ireland, around 280 cases have been confirmed and there have been no deaths there as yet.
Babies under the age of six months are most at risk of complications from whooping cough and health officials called on parents to make sure newborns are given the vaccine when they are eight weeks old. The infection can impair a baby’s breathing, which can cause them brain damage and even lead to their death.
Expectant mothers are also being urged to get vaccinated to pass protection on to their children before they are born.
The Scottish Government announced a temporary vaccination programme in September, offering the jab to all pregnant women between 28 and 38 weeks gestation, as rates for the infection began to show a significant rise.
Experts said this year’s rates far exceeded the number reported in the last peak year in 2009, when there were 118 cases for the whole year.
The rise comes despite vaccination for whooping cough reaching record levels across the UK. Doctors say they are unsure what is behind the largest outbreak of the disease in decades.
One suggestion is that the bacteria which causes the infection, officially termed Bordetella pertussis, may have changed.
Another possibility is that with so many years of tight control over whooping cough, people’s immune systems have not been naturally exposed to and boosted by repeat infections as they get older, leaving the population as a whole more vulnerable to the bacteria.
Dr Smith-Palmer said: “Young infants are most severely affected by this highly contagious infection and are more likely to develop complications, which can require hospital treatment and in severe cases can be fatal. There have been no pertussis-related deaths reported in Scotland to date in 2012.
“In response to the increase in pertussis – and in order to protect young infants in the first few weeks of life, before they are old enough to start the routine childhood immunisation programme at eight weeks – we would strongly recommend all pregnant women take up the offer of vaccine.
“Vaccinating pregnant women aims to boost immunity in the pregnant woman, which is passed across the placenta to the unborn child and should provide protection during the first few weeks of life.”
But she warned that the immunity young infants get from their mother, if she is vaccinated during pregnancy, only gives short-term protection for the first few weeks of their life.
Dr Smith-Palmer said, as a result, it was important that parents ensured their babies were vaccinated in order to provide longer-term protection.
Health Protection Scotland said the current outbreak was not unique to the UK as much higher rates were being found in countries including Norway, the US and Australia.
Last night, the Scottish Government also urged pregnant women and mothers to ensure their vaccinations were up to date against the infection.
A spokeswoman said: “We would encourage parents of young children and pregnant women to take up the whooping cough vaccination.
“Scotland, in common with the rest of the UK, has recently seen higher levels of whooping cough circulating than would normally be expected. That is why, following recommendations from the joint committee on vaccination and immunisation (JCVI), we announced that vaccination against whooping cough would be offered to pregnant women.
“This 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.”