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Call for pertussis boosters

Immunisation experts are calling for a campaign to give the parents of young babies booster vaccinations against whooping cough to protect children from infection.

Whooping cough is part of the children's vaccination schedule and usually given to infants at two to four months of age, with a booster after three years.

But evidence is growing that the incidence of whooping cough is rising among adolescents and adults, and unimmunised babies risk catching the disease from infectious adults within the same family.

In this week's BMJ paediatricians at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh report two fatal cases of invasive whooping cough in unvaccinated babies who had caught the infection from their parents.

Both cases ‘demonstrated the devastating course of invasive pertussis in young infants', they said, arguing prevention of infection, by means of a booster vaccination in adulthood, might be the only effective intervention against whooping cough for unimmunised infants.

Dr Ulf Theilen, consultant at the hospital's paediatric intensive care unit, urged GPs to treat family members with prophylactic antibiotics: ‘Cough lasting more than two weeks in adult or adolescent household members is the cardinal symptom and should raise suspicion of pertussis. Nocturnal, paroxysmal cough and post-tussive vomiting increase the likelihood further. Current recommendations support treating infected adults and giving prophylaxis to vulnerable infants with erythromycin for seven days.'

Dr Anthony Harnden, a GP in Whetley, Oxfordshire and a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said: ‘It's an ongoing consideration of the JCVI. I'm sure there will be an adolescent booster at some stage, when the Government thinks the public will respond to it.'

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