21 November 2018

NSW Health is urging all pregnant women and new parents to be aware of the symptoms of whooping cough and to ensure they and their children are vaccinated on time.

Despite almost 95 per cent of infants in NSW now vaccinated against the disease, outbreaks still occur every three to four years as community immunity wanes, and recent high numbers indicate an outbreak may be on the way.

Dr Vicky Sheppeard, NSW Health’s Director of Communicable Diseases, said that in October 2018, almost 800 people in NSW were notified with whooping cough (pertussis), the highest number since October 2016.

“Whooping cough is challenging to control at the community level, as it is a highly infectious disease and immunity against whooping cough wanes over time, regardless of whether that immunity is from having the disease or as a result of vaccination,” said Dr Sheppeard.

“This means that the number of people susceptible to whooping cough in the community builds up over time and this can cause periodic spikes or larger outbreaks of the disease.

“The aim of whooping cough control is to protect infants, who are at highest risk of severe disease or death if they contract whooping cough. Whooping cough vaccination is effective in preventing severe infection.”

A GP can test for whooping cough and prescribe antibiotics.

People suspected of whooping cough should stay home until they have completed a five-day course of antibiotics.

Since NSW Health introduced free whooping cough vaccination for pregnant women in April 2015 to protect infants in the first weeks of life, there have been no infant deaths from whooping cough in NSW, compared to four deaths in the previous six years.

All pregnant women should receive a whooping cough vaccination, preferably at 28 weeks gestation in each pregnancy. The vaccine is funded under the National Immunisation Program and available through GPs, Aboriginal medical services and some antenatal clinics.

On-time vaccination of infants is important, with the first dose due at six weeks, followed by doses at four months and six months of age. Boosters are due at 18 months, four years and in the first year of high school. It is pleasing to see that in the most recent annual report 94.8 per cent of NSW infants had received their full whooping cough course in 2017.

“People in close contact with newborn infants such as grandparents, partners and close family members should ensure that they have had a whooping cough vaccine in the previous 10 years. Those that need to get vaccinated should do so at least two weeks before any infant contact,” said Dr Sheppeard.

Protecting children from potentially deadly diseases is a key priority for the NSW Government, which is investing $22.75 million in immunisation programs this year.

Since 2013, NSW Health has committed $6.5 million to the Save the Date to Vaccinate campaign to provide parents with key messages about the importance of timely vaccination. Close to $1 million of this funding is being spent on the 2018 campaign, including an update of the popular ‘Save the Date to Vaccinate’ app.

During this period the percent of children fully vaccinated against all diseases at one year of age has increased from 90 per cent to 93.9 percent.

Amendments to the Public Health Act 2010 were passed in Parliament in September 2017. From 1 January, 2018 children who are unvaccinated due to their parent’s conscientious objection are no longer be able to be enrolled in child care, and principals should collect vaccination certificates for all children enrolling in primary or secondary school.

Under the Public Health Act, directors of child care centres and principals of primary and secondary schools should notify the local public health unit about cases of whooping cough to enable early public health control measures.

Key strategies to Identify, Protect and Prevent whooping cough include:

  1. Identify symptoms: Early diagnosis and treatment of whooping cough – see your GP early and follow their treatment advice; after five days of treatment with appropriate antibiotics people with whooping cough are no longer infectious but without proper treatment they will remain infectious for 21 days
  2. Protect baby, older children and adults: Timely vaccination of infants, pre-school children, adolescents and adults according to the recommended schedule is essential; and vaccination of pregnant women in the third trimester of pregnancy (preferably at 28 weeks) protects very young babies who are the most vulnerable to severe illness and death from whooping cough
  3. Prevent spread: Minimise the spread of whooping cough or other infectious conditions by practicing good personal hygiene – staying away from child care, school and work when sick; covering mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing and sneezing, and regular hand washing can help reduce spread of whooping cough.

For more information see Whooping cough and the Whooping cough fact sheet.