Call to immunise against whooping cough in the womb

sick baby whooping cough

Pregnant women are being urged to get the whooping cough vaccine to protect their babies in their precious first few months.

There has been an epidemic of whooping cough – or pertussis – in recent years, with 12,348 cases reported in Australia last year alone. It’s estimated that one in every 200 babies who contracts the disease will die.

Doses of the vaccine are given on the immunisation schedule at two, four and six months of age, but it takes at least two or most often three doses for the child to be protected – so they are vulnerable for at least four months.

Doctors have long recommended the “cocooning” method of protecting newborns from the potentially fatal virus – where parents and close family members or carers are vaccinated to try to avoid it spreading to the baby. But now they believe immunising pregnant women in their third trimester will better protect their babies – and themselves.

“Speak to any doctor or nurse who’s seen a baby with whooping cough and it’s just horrific,” says Dr Brian Morton, chair of the Australian Medical Association‘s council of general practice. “The idea is that if you protect the mother you are also protecting the baby, not only with antibodies but also from the mother contracting whooping cough and passing it on.”

Dr Morton says a similar approach with the flu vaccine has already seen good results. “There’s really good evidence that giving the flu vaccine during pregnancy protects not only the baby but also the mother in the first three months of life,” he says.

Children are immunised against pertussis with a combined vaccine that also takes in diphtheria, tetanus, and polio.  “They are all ‘killed’ vaccines so quite safe to give in pregnancy,” Dr Morton says. “They are not trialling whether it’s safe, they are trialling the protective effects on the mother and whether it decreases the risk on the newborn.”

Whooping cough is a highly infectious virus spread through droplets in the air and is most serious in babies under one year old. Symptoms include coughing and “whooping”, which can last months. Complications can include lack of oxygen to the brain, which can cause brain damage and even death.

The ABC’s 7.30 Queensland reports more than 80,000 British women have had whooping cough shots in their third trimester in the past two years, and doctors say the results are encouraging. They suggest the effectiveness for a baby in the first three months of life is about 93 per cent.

The AMA still recommends that close relatives and anyone who is going to nurse the baby in its early weeks has a whooping cough booster. In the Northern Territory, the pertussis vaccine is free to parents and close family members within seven months of the child’s birth. New mums in New South Wales can get immunised for free in public maternity units if they haven’t had a vaccine in the past five years.

Of course, for some parents it’s not only a decision of when to vaccinate, but whether to vaccinate. Last weekend the SBS broadcast a documentary about immunisation, Jabbed: Love, Fear and Vaccines. Regardless of your viewpoint, it’s a must-watch for anyone interested in the debate.

Michelle Rose

Michelle Rose

Michelle is a journalist and mum to two girls who are obsessed with dinosaurs, fairies, pirates and princesses in equal measure. She lives in Melbourne's east with her husband, daughters and a giant, untameable labradoodle. Michelle loves all things vegetarian, wine (it's a fruit) and online shopping.

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