Te Whatu Ora is encouraging people to be vigilant to the symptoms of whooping cough (pertussis) and renewing calls for pregnant people, pēpē (from six-weeks of age) and their caregivers to be immunised against whooping cough.
This comes following a further infant death from whooping cough. To date, three infants, all aged under one year, have died from whooping cough in 2023. This third tragic death is not related to the two earlier deaths reported by Te Whatu Ora on 9 March.
Dr William Rainger, Te Whatu Ora, Clinical Lead – Health Protection, National Public Health Service said, “Our condolences are with the three families who have lost tamariki to this highly infectious disease.”
“Out of respect to the family, we will not be releasing any further information on the most recent death.”
There have been 11 cases of whooping cough in 2023 so far. The ratio of fatalities to identified cases is much higher than in previous years, suggesting there may be undetected spread in the community.
“While reported cases remain low, these deaths are an urgent reminder that whooping cough is a serious illness, especially for younger babies,” says Dr Rainger.
“Parents should seek medical advice for their baby or young child if they have a cough that ends with a ‘whoop’ sound or vomiting.”
“The best protection is to ensure that pregnant people, babies and those who will spend time with babies are all immunised.”
Whooping cough (also called pertussis or the ‘hundred-day-cough') is highly infectious and is spread by coughing and sneezing. People can pass on the illness from the week before their cough starts. Early diagnosis and treatment with antibiotics can reduce the time a person is infectious to just two to five days but left untreated they can pass on the illness for up to three weeks.
Whooping cough starts like a cold with a runny nose, cough and fever, so it can be hard to recognise as a serious illness at first. After seven to ten days the cough becomes more severe and causes coughing fits that may end with a ‘whoop’, dry retching or vomiting. This illness is unpleasant for anyone, but it is life-threatening for babies.
Whooping cough in young babies is unpredictable and can get worse very quickly. Parents should also seek urgent medical advice if their baby:
- Stops breathing
- Goes blue with coughing
- Appears to have a cold, then cough and have difficulty breathing
- Gets exhausted from coughing
- Is not able to feed properly because of coughing and difficulty breathing
- Loses weight because of difficulty feeding and because the cough causes them to vomit (be sick).
With school holidays and the long Easter weekend approaching, public health services are calling on people who are unwell with a new or worsening cough, sneezing and runny nose, or a fever to avoid visiting young babies. Anyone with these symptoms who lives with a baby (e.g. grandparent or sibling) should self-isolate if they can or stay away from the baby as much as possible. Caregivers of young babies too young to be vaccinated should consider not taking babies to places with large numbers of people indoors.
The best protection against whooping cough is to be immunised. Babies and young children should get their vaccine doses on-time at six weeks, three months and five months. Booster doses are then available at four and 11 years old. However, if pēpē and tamariki have fallen behind in their childhood vaccination schedule, it’s never too late to catch them up. It is particularly important for tamariki to be up to date with their vaccinations if there is a new baby in the house.
“The opportunity is here right now to get ahead of whooping cough by catching up on routine immunisations which protect pēpē, tamariki and whānau,” said Dr Rainger.
Immunising against whooping cough during pregnancy is 90% effective in protecting babies in their first few weeks of life. It is critical for pregnant people to be immunised from 16 weeks pregnant – every time they are pregnant. This helps pass on some immunity to babies before they are old enough to be vaccinated themselves and is the best way a parent can protect their newborn baby against the illness.
Immunisation is available at medical centres, Hauora and Pacific health providers and at some pharmacies and free for:
- Babies at six weeks, three months and five months. Booster doses are then given at four and 11 years old
- Pregnant people for every pregnancy, from 16 weeks
- Adults at 45 and 65 years of age (same vaccine as the tetanus booster)
- Some groups who are at higher risk of becoming very unwell if they catch whooping cough.
Immunity after vaccination reduces over time which means an adult can still become infected with whooping cough (and pass infection to a baby), even if they received all their childhood whooping cough vaccinations. This is why it is important for anyone who is sick to stay away from young babies and children. A booster vaccination can be offered to extended whānau but this may not be funded.
It is safe to get the vaccination again if you aren’t sure.
Anyone with a cough for two weeks or more, or a cough that ends with a ‘whoop’ sound or vomiting should seek medical advice. Contact your doctor or call Healthline for free on 0800 611 116. If anyone has difficulty breathing, call 111 and get help immediately.