GPs are to immunise more than 730,000 pregnant women a year against whooping cough to help stem the increasing rise in cases of the disease among newborns.
From Monday, all pregnant women are to be offered the pertussis vaccine as part of a £10 million temporary programme being rolled out across the country, the Department of Health has announced.
Women who are between 28 and 38 weeks pregnant are expected to receive the Repevax vaccine as part of their routine antenatal appointment with a nurse, midwife or GP.
GPs have also been handed responsibility for chasing up patients to ensure all those that should receive the vaccine do.
The move follows a major surge in whooping cough cases with 4,791 cases so far this year – more than four times higher than the total number of cases reported for the whole of 2011.
It is the impact on newborns which is causing the most concern, with nine deaths in England and 302 cases of infection in babies under 12 weeks old in just eight months.
Professor David Salisbury, DH director of immunisation, confirmed that GPs would receive the standard IOS fee of £7.60 to administer the vaccine.
‘GPs will have to discuss this with their pregnant patients. There will be work in this. The actual administration is a matter of seconds so I don’t see that as actually being burdensome but certainly the discussion may well be a piece of time that needs to be set aside.
‘But do you not think this is something that has to be done? We have got deaths and cases that we need to prevent’.
Professor Salisbury said the DH had looked at a range of options of tackling the sudden increase, including a school-leaving booster or bringing the first immunisation age down to six weeks.
But it was decided that the UK would follow in the footsteps of the US which introduced the programme 18 months ago.
He said the booster for school leavers was an ‘option for the future’ but immunising pregnant women was the solution to preventing whooping cough in infants ‘right now’.
‘It is boosting the mother to protect her baby,’ he added.
Dr Richard Vautrey GPC deputy chair, said the programme was a ‘sensible response’ to the recent surge, while the payments were an ‘appropriate amount’. He said he expected practices will help kick-off the programme as ‘expeditiously as possible’.
‘We shouldn’t underestimate the difficulties practices will have in both contacting patients and reassuring pregnant women that it is the right thing to do and it will take some time but we hope the information that has been put out publically will convince pregnant women this is the right thing to do’.
The programme is temporary and will continue for the ‘time being’ while being evaluated by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, according to the DH.