Figures released by the Health Protection Agency this month show that 665 laboratory confirmed cases of whooping cough were reported to the Health Protection Agency (HPA) in England and Wales between January and March 2012, compared to a total of 1,040 cases during the whole of 2011. Almost a quarter of these cases were in the South East region, with some areas reporting clusters of cases in schools, universities and healthcare settings.

Dr Peter Biggs, a GP from Northgate Medical Practice in Canterbury said: “It’s every child’s right to receive immunisations against preventable illnesses such as whooping cough and measles, and it’s every parent’s responsibility to ensure that these are given. These diseases have not gone away, and it’s really important that parents understand the importance of keeping up with immunisation schedules. Babies need to be vaccinated at two, three and four months, and again when they reach their first birthday. Children also need a pre-school booster once they reach three and a half. If you’re not sure about the schedule or you need more information, discuss this with your GP or Health Visitor.”

Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at the HPA said: “Vaccination is the most effective way to protect people from this infection and uptake of the vaccine is very good. Parents should ensure their children are up to date with their vaccinations so that they are protected at the earliest opportunity. The pre-school booster is also important, not only to boost protection in that child but also to reduce the risk of them passing the infection on to vulnerable babies, as those under four months cannot be fully protected by the vaccine.

“The HPA has written to GPs to remind them of the signs and symptoms of this infection and stress the importance of vaccination. The agency is also encouraging GPs to report cases quickly and to make them aware of the HPA’s guidance to help reduce the spread of the infection.”

Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, can affect all ages. However over the last few months the increase has extended to very young children who have the highest risk of severe complications and even death. Whooping cough in older people can be an unpleasant illness but does not usually lead to serious complications.

The main symptoms of whooping cough are severe coughing fits which, in babies and children, are accompanied by the characteristic “whoop” sound as the child gasps for breath after coughing.

The HPA is also reminding parents to ensure their children are protected against measles due to a slight increase in cases since the beginning of the year. So far, 253 laboratory confirmed measles cases have been reported to the agency in 2012 compared to 200 cases reported for the same period last year. The majority of cases have been in unvaccinated individuals.