Whooping cough or pertussis is an acute bacterial disease of the respiratory tract, resulting from infection with Bordetella pertussis. It can affect people of all ages but while adolescents and adults tend to suffer with a prolonged cough, unimmunised infants are at risk of severe complications and death.
Complications of whooping cough include:
- long-term brain damage as a result of cerebral hypoxia
Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent pertussis transmission, although protection through vaccination or from past infection isn't for life.
For further information on the transmission, symptoms and treatment of whooping cough please visit the NHS inform website.
Guidance is available from Public Health England (PHE) for the public health management of pertussis.
The guidance has been approved for use in Scotland by the Scottish Health Protection Network Guidance Group (SHPN-GG) and should be used in conjunction with the SHPN addendum.
PHE also offer further guidance, data and analysis on pertussis.
For more information on whooping cough immunisation, including updates, please refer to the Public Health England (PHE) Green book, chapter 24.
Visit NHS Education for Scotland (NES) for training and education materials for healthcare professionals.
For all infection prevention and control guidance visit the A-Z pathogens section of the National Infection and Prevention Control Manual.
Download our pertussis incident form for infants under one year.
Data and surveillance
Surveillance update for January to March 2020
Figure 1 shows the number of positive laboratory reports of Bordetella pertussis in Scotland from 2012 through 2020. Following an outbreak in 2012 and 2013, during which there were 1,896 and 1,188 laboratory reports of pertussis, respectively, the number of reports has declined but remains elevated when compared with pre-outbreak levels.
There were 166 laboratory reports reported in the first quarter of 2020, which is higher than the number of laboratory reports for the same period in 2019 (110 reports) and 2018 (63 reports) but lower than in 2017 (191 reports) and 2016 (265 reports).
Age breakdown of cases
Young infants are the group most likely to develop complications from pertussis infection which can require hospital treatment and, in severe cases, can be fatal. In response to the outbreak, a pertussis vaccination programme for pregnant women was introduced in October 2012 with the aim of protecting young infants in the first few weeks of life before they are old enough to start the routine childhood vaccination programme at eight weeks.
Figure 2 presents the percentage of laboratory reports for pertussis by age group and year from 2012 through the first quarter of 2020. As in past years, the data for 2020 indicate that adults aged 40 to 59 years accounted for a comparatively higher percentage of laboratory reports than did individuals in other age groups.
As shown in Figure 3, the incidence of positive laboratory reports for Bordetella pertussis in the first quarter of 2020 was highest among children under one year of age at 5.9 per 100,000 population. This was followed by children aged 1 to 4 years, with an incidence of 5.0 per 100,000 population.
Laboratory reports by NHS board
Figure 4 shows the number of pertussis laboratory reports and incidence per 100,000 population by NHS board during the first quarter of 2020. There is variation between NHS boards, with NHS Highland having the highest incidence (6.2 reports per 100,000 population), whereas NHS Orkney, NHS Shetland, and NHS Western Isles had no positive laboratory reports during this period.
In response to the increase in cases and to protect young infants in the first few weeks of life until starting the routine childhood immunisation programme at eight weeks, a programme was introduced in October 2012 to offer pertussis vaccination to all pregnant women.
The vaccine is offered between gestational weeks 16 and 32 to maximise protection of the baby from birth. Women may still be immunised after week 32 of pregnancy but this may not offer as high a level of passive immunological protection to the baby. Vaccination late in pregnancy may, however, directly protect the mother against disease and thereby reduce the risk of exposure to her infant.
As pertussis continues to circulate in Scotland above historical levels, immunisation of pregnant women is vital. The immunity young infants will receive from the mother, although very important in the first few weeks of life, is only short term protection. Therefore it's important that infants are vaccinated as part of the routine childhood schedule on time in order to provide longer term protection.