Fresh warning over whooping cough as cases rise

Health experts have issued a fresh warning over whooping cough after a substantial rise in cases in England.

Nine babies so far are known to have died between November and the end of May, while new data shows 2,591 cases of the disease were recorded in May alone.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) urged pregnant women to have the whooping cough jab to protect their babies, while parents should check their youngsters are up to date with all their immunisations.

It comes as NHS data for England shows the overall waiting list for planned treatment – such as knee and hip replacements – has risen for the second month in a row.

An estimated 7.6 million treatments were waiting to be carried out at the end of May, relating to 6.38 million patients – up slightly from 7.57 million treatments and 6.33 million patients at the end of April.

The list hit a record high in September 2023 with 7.77 million treatments and 6.50 million patients, after which the figures began to fall, before showing an increase in both April and May this year.

Graphic showing NHS hospital treatments waiting to be carried out in England rising to 7.6 million
(PA Graphics)

May saw 2,591 cases confirmed, taking the total number of cases from January to May 2024 to 7,599.

In the whole of last year, there were 858 cases, the UKHSA said.

Pregnant women are offered the whooping cough vaccine in every pregnancy, ideally between 20 and 32 weeks, which offers 92% protection against babies dying from the disease.

All babies are given three doses of the six-in-one combined vaccine at eight, 12 and 16 weeks of age to protect against whooping cough and other serious diseases such as diphtheria.

Young babies are known to be at highest risk of the severe complications and death caused by whooping cough.

Patients in England waiting more than a year and a half to start hospital treatment
(PA Graphics)

Whooping cough is known to peak every three to five years, but the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic means there is reduced immunity to the disease in the population.

Other figures show declining numbers of women accepting the jab in pregnancy, with 58.9% having the vaccine in March.

Dr Mary Ramsay, director of immunisation at the UKHSA, said: “Vaccination is the best defence against whooping cough and it is vital that pregnant women and young infants receive their vaccines at the right time.

“Pregnant women are offered a whooping cough vaccine in every pregnancy, ideally between 20 and 32 weeks.

“This passes protection to their baby in the womb so that they are protected from birth in the first months of their life when they are most vulnerable and before they can receive their own vaccines.

“With cases continuing to rise and sadly nine infant deaths since the outbreak began last November, ensuring women are vaccinated appropriately in pregnancy has never been more important.

“Our thoughts and condolences are with those families who have so tragically lost their baby.”

Kate Brintworth, chief midwifery officer for England, said women can talk to their GP or maternity team if they have any questions about the vaccine.

She added: “Women can access the vaccine, which also protects against diphtheria and tetanus, through their GP or some antenatal services, and parents should also ensure that their children get protected in the first few months after birth as part of the routine NHS vaccine offer.”

Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a bacterial infection affecting the lungs.

It starts as a cold-like runny nose and sore throat but, after about a week, can develop into bouts of coughing that are typically worse at night.

Young babies may also make a distinctive “whoop” noise or have difficulty breathing, though not all babies make this noise.

(PA Graphics)

Some 76.4% of patients urgently referred for suspected cancer in May were also diagnosed or had cancer ruled out within 28 days. This is up from 73.5% the previous month and is above the target of 75%.

It is only the third time the target has been exceeded since it was introduced in autumn 2021.

GPs in England also made 270,583 urgent cancer referrals in May, up from 260,108 in April and also up year on year from 245,849 in May 2023.

Sarah Woolnough, chief executive of the King’s Fund independent think tank, said: ‘On his first day in office, the new Secretary of State for Health and Social Care said the NHS is broken.

“These statistics make that statement hard to disagree with. Funding might be tight, but in many ways the space has now been created to drive much-needed reform of the NHS.”

(PA Graphics)

“Today’s figures show 75% of people waited under four hours in A&E, when the target is 95%; only 59% of patients waited under 18 weeks for planned hospital treatment when the target is 92%; and the average ambulance response time to conditions like strokes and heart attacks was over 34 minutes when the standard is 18 minutes.

“The figures show the next five months, let alone the next five years, will be far from plain sailing.”

“While there are no quick fixes, with the right blend of policy change, innovation and investment, the new Government can put the NHS back on its feet.”

It comes after Health Secretary Wes Streeting announced an independent investigation into the performance of the NHS.

The Cabinet minister said the probe will be aimed at “diagnosing the problem” so the Government can “write the prescription”.

The investigation will be led by former health minister Lord (Ara) Darzi.

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