Pregnant women are to be vaccinated against whooping cough, health officials said, after the biggest outbreak of the illness for two decades claimed the lives of 10 babies.
So far this year 10 infants under the age of three months have died as a result of the infectious disease – including nine in England and one in Northern Ireland.
There have been 4,791 confirmed cases in England and Wales between January and August – four times more than the total figure for 2011, when there were 1,118 cases, the Health Protection Agency (HPA) said.
Chief Medical Officer Professor Dame Sally Davies, the Government’s principal medical adviser, said that mothers-to-be will be offered the vaccination to protect their newborn babies.
Youngsters cannot receive the jab until they are two months old. Vaccinating their mothers before they are born will boost their immunity until they reach the age they can get the injection themselves, Dame Sally said.
From Monday, women across the UK who are between 28 and 38 weeks pregnant will be offered the vaccination.
Increases in whooping cough are usually seen every three to four years. The last rise in the number of confirmed cases was recorded in 2008. The largest number of cases have been in those over the age of 15 but there has also been a sharp rise in whooping cough in babies aged under three months.
Between January and August there were 302 cases reported in babies under three months, compared with just 115 cases in the whole of 2011.
Dr David Elliman, immunisation specialist of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: “The Department of Health’s announcement that all women in late pregnancy are to be offered the vaccine is welcome.
“This will mean that the mothers are less likely to catch the disease themselves and so won’t pass it on to their new born babies. In addition, they will pass on some immunity to their babies until they themselves are immunised.
“At the same time, it is important to ensure that all children receive a full course of the vaccine and that this is not delayed. The vaccine is very safe.”