NHS confusion over who should give whooping cough jab may have fuelled outbreak, expert warns

A newborn spent 10 days in a coma after contracting whooping cough
Baby Polly Deehy spent 10 days in a coma after contracting whooping cough - Kerry Pearson, SWNS

Confusion among NHS medics about who should be giving the whooping cough jab to pregnant women may have fuelled the recent outbreak that killed five babies, a leading doctor has warned.

Dr David Elliman, a consultant at Great Ormond Street Hospital, said “a lack of clarity as to who is responsible” for giving the vaccine to expectant mothers was the most probable reason behind low uptake.

He said the deaths of the five infants in the first three months of the year – the most in a decade – should “be a wake-up call” to the health service.

Despite vaccine hesitancy and fatigue being blamed for the falling uptake of other jabs including measles, mumps and rubella, Dr Elliman said pregnant women were not at fault for the low uptake and “there is no evidence” they are declining the jab.

Kerry Pearson, 26, with her daughter Baby Polly Deehy
Kerry Pearson with daughter Polly, who was put on a ventilator and in an induced coma, at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington, London

“The NHS is going through a period of turmoil and all services are under considerable pressure. This has had a part to play,” he said.

“There is no evidence that the low uptake of whooping cough vaccine in pregnancy is due to women declining the vaccine.

“More likely is a lack of clarity as to who is responsible for giving it – primary care or maternity.”

It comes as a sixth baby is feared to have died from the disease, although her cause of death is yet to be confirmed by a coroner.

Evie-Grace Lewis died last week at just 15 days old after developing a cough and quickly deteriorating.

Her father Reece Lewis and partner Caitlin, who had been vaccinated, said she had been “perfectly fine” in the first few days of her life and it was only “around day seven when we really started to worry”.

Mr Lewis said: “In the last two to three days of her life was when it really went bad and she just deteriorated so quickly – it was unreal.

“Her first cough would be a normal cough, then she would go silent and you could hear she was so blocked up she couldn’t get the cough out and was struggling to breathe.”

The pair have set up a fundraising page to raise money for Birmingham Children’s Hospital whose staff “did everything they possibly could to pull Evie through”.

Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, has been dubbed the “100-day cough” because of how long it can take to recover from it.

The NHS recommends all pregnant women are vaccinated against whooping cough between 16 and 32 weeks to protect their baby in the first weeks of its life before it can get its own vaccinations.

Nurse vaccinating little girl at Healthcare Center. Whooping cough, diphtheria and tetanus
Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, has been dubbed the '100-day cough' because of how long it can take to recover from it - WHPics

However, experts claim there is confusion about whether the GP or antenatal team should be responsible for offering the jab.

The NHS website says the whooping cough vaccine, first made available for pregnant women in 2012, is available from the GP and some antenatal clinics, where expectant mothers go for check-ups during pregnancy.

It states: “You may be offered the vaccination at a routine antenatal appointment from around 16 weeks of your pregnancy. If you are more than 16 weeks pregnant and have not been offered the vaccine, talk to your midwife or GP and make an appointment to get vaccinated.”

It’s not clear where or if women are being made aware it is one of the free vaccinations recommended during pregnancy, alongside flu and Covid jabs.

Kerry Pearson, 26, from Bexley in southeast London, revealed how her daughter Polly Deehy had developed the cough at just two weeks and spent ten days in an induced coma after being rushed to hospital.

She had the jab when she was pregnant with her seven-year-old son, but was not offered it while pregnant with Polly.

More than 2,700 whooping cough cases have been reported across England so far in 2024 and five babies are confirmed to have died with experts warning that more are likely to follow.

Prof Sir Andrew Pollard, the government’s chief vaccine advisor, warned that “if we continue to have high rates of spread and low rates of vaccination, there will be more babies severely affected and sadly there will be more deaths”.

The latest figures show just 37 per cent of pregnant women in London had been vaccinated by the end of last year, down from 61 per cent before the pandemic.

Across the country, take-up fell by 19 per cent from almost three in four pregnant women jabbed, while take-up among under-5s fell by 4 per cent.

Dr Elliman said: “The rise in cases of measles and pertussis and the sad deaths of five babies in the first three months of this year, should be a wakeup call to the NHS.”

He said that “successive governments have paid lip service to the importance of preventative health care” and called for “clarity about who is responsible for maternity immunizations”.

The vaccine is 92 per cent effective in protecting a newborn baby if given to the mother while pregnant, providing immunization before the baby can get their own vaccinations.

Immunity from the jab passes through the placenta to protect newborn babies in their first weeks of life.

When a baby is eight weeks old they can get the six-in-one vaccine, which includes immunization against whooping cough.

The second dose of the vaccine is offered at 12 weeks and the third at 16 weeks.

When children are three years and four months they can get the four-in-one pre-school booster, which protects against pertussis.

Prof Andrew Preston from the University of Bath said the “very worrying drop” in vaccination rates since the pandemic was likely caused by “interruption to health services that have been difficult to fully restart” as well as “high levels of mistrust of health services and of vaccines in some sections of society”.

“It is clear that there is an urgent need for a major push to increase awareness of the current high level of risk of whooping cough among infants,” he added.