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 April to June 2019
Since 2012, Scotland has experienced a long-term outbreak of pertussis, as has the rest of the UK.
Figure 1 shows the number of laboratory reports in Scotland from 2011 until 2019 (week 26). In 2012 and 2013 there were 1926 and 1188 laboratory confirmed cases, respectively. Although this declined to a total of 443 laboratory confirmed cases in 2018, it still remains well above the levels historically seen in Scotland over the previous 10-year period, for example 119 in 2011. In 2019 (week 26), there were 276 confirmed cases of pertussis which was higher than in the same time period in 2018 (172).
Age breakdown of cases
Young infants are the group most likely to develop complications from 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. The aim is to protect young infants in the first few weeks of life before they are old enough to start the routine childhood programme at eight weeks.
Figure 2 presents the proportion of laboratory reports by age breakdown for pertussis by year from 2012 until 2019 (week 26). In 2019 the highest proportion of reports is in those aged 10 to 14 years and adults aged 20 to 69 years. Although lower, the proportion in children aged 1 to 4 years is higher than that seen in this time period in previous years.
Figure 3 shows that in 2019 (week 26) there were 6 cases of pertussis in infants under 1 year of age (2.82%) with an incidence rate of 11.2 per 100,000, compared to 239.1 per 100,000 at the start of the outbreak in 2012. The incidence rate was highest in those aged 10 to 14 years, with 12.5 per 100,000.
In 2018 there were 12 cases in infants aged two months and under compared to 26 cases in 2017 which remains low despite the continued high activity in older age groups. This is still well below that of 95 cases in 2012 demonstrating the positive impact of vaccination programme in reducing the incidence of pertussis in young infants.
Laboratory confirmed cases by NHS board
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.