Whooping cough alert

Health Protection Agency writes to all South West GPs after sharp rise in cases.

Nearly 500 cases of whooping cough were reported to the Health Protection Agency’s units in the South West in the first five months of the year - more than double the cases across the whole of 2011.

This sharp rise in cases outlines the need for vaccination and the importance of early diagnosis, says the agency.

The increase, 471 this year compared to 219 for the whole of 2011, has been reported across all regions in England and it continues a trend reported in the second half of last year.

Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, affects all ages, but, fortunately, although unpleasant for older people, it does not usually lead to serious complications. However, for very young children it can cause more severe complications and be a life threatening disease, and unfortunately, over the last few months we have seen a rise in cases among young children in the region.

The main symptoms of whooping cough are severe coughing fits which may be accompanied by the characteristic “whoop” sound caused by gasps for breath after coughing. The cough can last for weeks or months.

The Health Protection Agency has already written to GPs across the country to remind them of the signs and symptoms of the infection and stressing the importance of vaccination. The agency is also encouraging GPs to report cases quickly.

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Dr Isabel Oliver, the Health Protection Agency’s South West regional director, said: “The recent increases reported to the South West may be due to greater awareness of the infection and reporting of cases by healthcare professionals. Nonetheless, whooping cough can be a very unpleasant infection.

“Anyone showing 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 and adults – should visit their GP.”

“If the infection is caught at an early stage, it can be treated effectively with a course of antibiotics and this will also prevent onward spread. This is very important as whooping cough can spread easily to close contacts such as household members.

“Vaccination is the most effective way to protect from the infection and uptake of the vaccine is very good. Parents should ensure their children are up to date with their vaccinations so that they are protected at the earliest opportunity.

“The pre-school booster is also important, not only to boost protection in that child but also to reduce the risk of them passing the infection on to vulnerable babies, as those under four months cannot be fully protected by the vaccine.”