HEALTH Minister Dr James Reilly is coming under pressure to approve a whooping cough vaccine to protect extremely young babies.
Due to an upsurge in whooping cough cases, two deaths in babies were reported to the Health Protection Surveillance Centre last year, compared with one in 2011.
The National Immunisation Advisory Committee subsequently advised pregnant mothers to get the vaccine, so that their babies could be immune from whooping cough for the first two months of their life.
But despite this, advice, no move has been made by Dr Reilly to add the vaccine under the free vaccination programme for newborns.
It is the latest drugs controversy to develop, following demands to fund a new €234,000-per-year drug, which can extend the life expectancy of cystic fibrosis patients.
Pregnant women are now being advised by their GPs to get the vaccine, which costs around €30 privately. But almost five months on, Dr Reilly has still not made any decision about providing it free of charge as part of the vaccine programme.
The Irish Patients Association called on Dr Reilly to roll out the whooping cough vaccine for pregnant mothers to ensure their babies were protected.
Its chairman Stephen McMahon said that the state should be able to negotiate a substantial discount on the vaccine if it was providing it to an estimated 70,000 women annually.
"If there are proven ways that will protect life, people should be able to avail of it," he said.
Whooping cough is a highly-contagious bacterial disease chiefly affecting children, characterised by convulsive coughs followed by a "whoop".
Very young babies are at the greatest risk of serious complications and death.
Women can get the whooping cough vaccine when they are 28-32 weeks pregnant.
The injection can boost a mother's defences, which are then passed on to the baby.
At a full price cost of €30 per vaccine, it would cost the state €2.1m per year to provide to 70,000 pregnant mothers.
Babies are already given a whooping cough vaccine as part of the six in one vaccine at two, four, and six monthsof age and a booster vaccine dose is given at four or five years of age.
A spokesman for Dr James Reilly confirmed discussions were still ongoing between his department and the HSE about providing the vaccine free.