Whooping cough heading to epidemic levels with Wellington leading the charge
New Zealand is heading towards a whooping cough epidemic as cases of the deadly illness more than double this season.
The rising tide of whooping cough has two Starship Hospital paediatricians urging parents to ensure they and their children are vaccinated.
Their warning comes just days after a Perth woman spoke out after she refused to be vaccinated for whooping cough during pregnancy, got whooping cough, and passed it on to her newborn baby daughter, who almost died.
She described the "horror movie" cough, her baby turning blue in her arms and the dash to hospital and into intensive care.
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Nationwide, the cases of whooping cough have more than doubled since this time last year and just under a quarter of cases are from within the Wellington region.
Starship paediatric doctor Fiona Miles said most whooping cough deaths were babies which were too young to be vaccinated, making it important for parents and caregivers to be vaccinated so they did not pass on the illness.
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"We have had some where the parents have chosen not to vaccinate [their children] and they very much regret it when they see their children struggling to breathe, or dying."
Whooping cough was always present in the community but tended to work on a four-year cycle of epidemics.
The last epidemic was four years ago, putting the country in line for one. The doubling of cases, and a big surge in Australian cases, meant an epidemic was highly likely.
Getting immunised, and on time, was the best prevention and this included booster shots for adults.
Babies were most likely to die. Up to 70 per cent of babies aged under one who got whooping cough would end up in hospital.
About one in 100 would die.
"We lose about one a year. This is a preventable disease so we shouldn't be losing anyone."
There had been some success in getting mothers and grandparents immunised but more needed to be done to get fathers to realise they also posed a risk, she said.
Former Wellington mum Alex Weehuizen believes a Government campaign is needed to encourage all adults to get vaccinated for whooping cough because lapsed immunity from childhood vaccinations means they risk passing the disease to vulnerable babies.
A few months after shifting to Wanaka last year, her 17-month-old twins, Max and Elliot, got a moderate dose of whooping cough. Born three months premature, they had been vaccinated as babies, but their poor immunity left them at risk. Both parents had also been vaccinated so the disease originated from outside their family.
"The biggest issue is adults are passing it to children," Weehuizen says.
Wellington man Robert Schofield knows first-hand what whooping cough is like. For him, a romantic getaway to Dunedin ended with him contracting it.
There was no chance of death - just a persistent and "incredibly annoying" cough that lasted months.
He did not think cough was infectious but went to his doctor as a precaution early on and was told it was not whooping cough.
"A week later she rang sheepishly amd said, 'you have it'."
He was no longer contagious but had to tell all his co-workers, especially those with children, that they may have caught it.
He had not been vaccinated as an adult but recommended vaccinations for anyone likely to contract it.
"It's horrible to get it."
WHAT IS WHOOPING COUGH?
Whooping cough - or pertussis - is a common and potentially deadly childhood illness caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis.
"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."
Starship paediatric doctor Anusha Ganeshalingham, who was also calling for people to ensure they were properly vaccinated, said the last whopping cough outbreak was the worst seen at the hospital since 1991 "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."
Whooping cough vaccines should be done at six weeks, three months and five months of age.
The vaccination is funded for all children as part of the National Immunisation Schedule and is also free for pregnant women between 28-38 weeks.