PREGNANT women must continue to have vaccinations against whooping cough as levels of the infection remain high in Scotland, experts have warned.
The past two years has seen a surge in cases of whooping cough across the UK.
In 2012, Health Protection Scotland (HPS) received 1,926 lab reports of the illness – also known as pertussis – compared to previous years when cases numbered between 50 and 120.
While cases have dropped in 2013 – and are currently standing at 1,084 – it is not known how long it will take for levels to drop to their previous lows.
As a result of the surge in whooping cough cases, health experts have recommended that women in the later stages of pregnancy receive the whooping cough vaccine to pass protection to their unborn child.
Whooping cough is an infectious bacterial disease which spreads when a person with the infection coughs.
Dr Alison Smith-Palmer, an epidemiologist at HPS, said levels of whooping cough were coming down in Scotland but were still “way above” historical levels.
She said: “The key message would be for pregnant women to take up the offer of vaccination to get that immunity across to their unborn child to protect them in the first few weeks of life.
“As there is not so much attention on whooping cough now as there was this time last year it might not be quite at the forefront of women’s minds as it was.
“But although the levels are down on last year they are still above historical levels.”
Dr Smith-Palmer said that in lab reports for the past ten years, excluding this year and last year, the highest number of whooping cough cases was 119.
She said the youngest and most vulnerable were most at risk when cases rose as they did not complete their vaccinations until around four months old.
In older children and adults, whooping cough can be an unpleasant illness but it does not usually lead to serious complications.
Dr Smith-Palmer said: “It is well documented that the highest rate of complications and fatalities are in very young children.
“The focus of the immunisation programme for pregnant women has been to protect that very young group before they are old enough to start getting their own immunisations at eight weeks.”
Once vaccinated, women produce high antibody levels which are transferred to their baby.
There have been no deaths from whooping cough in Scotland since the rise in cases began. But in England and Wales, 14 babies under three months died in 2012.
Dr Smith-Palmer said she believed deaths had been prevented thanks to the vaccination programme.
She said: “The number of cases we have in the under-ones are a lot less than they were last year.
“Last year we had 140 under-ones and this year we have had less than 20.
“We have seen a marked decrease in the under-one cases.
“That is very good evidence that vaccination has had an impact and England and Wales have seen a similar decline as well.”
The UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) make decisions on vaccine programmes and were continually reviewing the impact of the illness, Dr Smith-Palmer said.
“At the moment they are recommending that whooping cough is still circulating and pregnant women still take up the offer of the vaccine,” she added.
“It can be unpleasant and it can be severe in the older age group, but it tends to not be so severe.
“The highest rate of mortality and the highest rate of hospitalisation to intensive care is all in the youngest age groups.
“They are the group that you really want to protect from it.
“At least the numbers are going down at the moment but we can’t predict how long it will take to get back down to what we saw prior to 2012.”
Dr Smith-Palmer said the length of the surge in cases was not unexpected.
She added: “Other countries have seen similar surges and the pattern is not dissimilar to what has been seen elsewhere.
“It does take a while for the situation to come back down to historical levels again.”
Reports of whooping cough in Scotland
20131,084 (to 6 Dec)