Whooping Cough NZ Cases Double

(PR.co.nz) Two Starship paediatric specialists are warning Kiwi parents to ensure their children are vaccinated against whooping cough after new figures show New Zealand cases are up by over 108% for the same time last year.

Whooping cough (pertussis) is a common and potentially deadly childhood illness caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis, one of the most contagious diseases affecting the human population2.

Paediatric Intensivist at Starship children’s hospital Dr Anusha Ganeshalingham says the disease has a cyclical nature, with large-scale outbreaks occurring every two to five years.

“Our last outbreak was between 2011 – 2013 which means New Zealand could be due for another one soon,” she says.

Dr Ganeshalingham says the previous epidemic was the most serious recorded in the 25 year history of the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU).

“That outbreak was the worst our unit had seen since our unit was established in 1991, we had the same number of ICU admissions in that two year period as we had for the entire decade before that, and certainly the death rate was the worst it’s ever been.

“We had three infant deaths, two were in our unit, and one was a little baby in another city, who was too sick for us to even retrieve,” she says.

Dr Ganeshalingham says of particular concern is malignant or critical pertussis which creates complications that can be fatal.

“Those most at risk of malignant pertussis are those newborns and infants who are unimmunised, they are the 4-6 week old babies who have never had, or might have had one dose of the vaccine, but are certainly mostly unimmunised.”

She says these infants are the ones most likely to develop pneumonia, have a very high white blood cell count and high blood pressure in their lungs. These babies also often need to go onto a ventilator and have blood pressure support.

“Caring for very sick babies with severe pertussis can be extremely difficult on our staff and parents often express feelings of guilt knowing that their baby has a preventable illness.”

“When we looked at our 10 year experience, we found that 62 children were admitted to the paediatric intensive care unit with pertussis and 34 admissions were during the most recent epidemic. 98% were less than 6 months of age and 84% were less than 3 months of age. Of these children, 63% were too young to be immunised. There were 11 children with malignant pertussis and 6 of these children died.”

Paediatric Intensivist Dr Fiona Miles agrees the death of an infant from whooping cough has a huge impact on their families and doctors.

“It’s really distressing for the whole team to be unable to save these babies, and to see the raw grief of parents losing a baby,” she says.

But Dr Miles says ensuring vaccinations are carried out on time and all family members who come into contact with infants are immunised, a term known as “cocooning”, will help to stem outbreaks.

“The main group we need to worry about are the very small babies, newborn babies who are too young to be immunised, and have no protection and have the highest risk of dying from whooping cough.

“What that means is we need to be very vigilant about immunising everyone around them. While there has been some success with the immunisation of mothers and grandparents I think fathers need to realise that they pose a risk to their babies and need to be immunised,” she says.

“The pertussis vaccine we know doesn’t last forever, so people who haven’t been immunised since they were children have low immunity and if there’s an outbreak then it’s very easy for it to be transmitted on,” says Dr Miles.

On-time immunisation with whooping cough vaccine at six weeks, three months and five months of age is one of the most effective way to protect infants against whooping cough.

Whooping cough vaccination is funded for all children as part of the National Immunisation Schedule and is also free for pregnant women between 28-38 weeks.

Media Release 15 April 2016.