Sunday 20 January 2019

'Coughing fits would make my lips turn blue': Whooping cough is back

Nikki Foley, who is expecting her third child, was struck with whooping cough when she was an infant. Here she is pictured with her husband Des and her two children Zach and Alex
Nikki Foley, who is expecting her third child, was struck with whooping cough when she was an infant. Here she is pictured with her husband Des and her two children Zach and Alex

You’ve familiarised yourself with the symptoms of meningitis, can identify a common cold and know the tell-tale signs of chickenpox, but what about the long-forgotten illnesses that have resurfaced and can cause serious illness and even death?

One such illness is the whooping cough, often referred to as pertussis. A respiratory tract infection, it’s marked by a severe cough followed by a high-pitched intake of breath that sounds like ‘whoop’. While anyone can be susceptible to the illness, it usually affects infants who are too young to have completed the full course of vaccinations, and teenagers and adults whose immunity has faded.

In rare cases, it can be fatal. Deaths associated with whooping cough are uncommon, but most frequently occur in infants. That’s why it’s so important for pregnant women to be vaccinated against the disease.

Worryingly, the number of children contracting the highly contagious disease is on the rise. The HSE are now calling on pregnant women to avail of the vaccine after the death of a baby in Co Longford following an outbreak of the illness.

Expectant mum Clíodhna McNamara explains why she has availed of the life-saving vaccine. The special needs assistant who is pregnant with her first child, contracted the deadly disease when she was just eight-weeks-old. Close to death, the 27-year-old who lives in Shannon, Co Clare with her fiancé, is adamant that her unborn child will not endure the same fate.

“I got the injection last month at 22 weeks. The only side effect was a dead arm for a few days. I had the whopping couch as a baby for four weeks, I had to be christened in the hospital at eight-weeks-old as my parents were told that I could die, so I jumped when I was offered the vaccine for the benefit of my baby.”

Clíodhna who is 27 weeks pregnant explains: “I was born on December 7, 1990 and on New Year’s weekend, my aunt called down for the weekend. I had a cough, which she reckoned was bad enough to be whooping cough. Mum took me to the GP who said it couldn’t be whooping cough as I was breastfed. A week later, they brought me to a specialist doctor in Limerick and I was admitted straight away to hospital and put in isolation for 10 days. Neighbours of ours who came to visit had to stand as my godparents as I was christened in the chapel of University Hospital Limerick.

“My mum, Nuala, is adamant that everyone should avail of injection as it was traumatising for everyone; the baby, parents and siblings at home.” 

When it came to the vaccination, Clíodhna had all the information at hand.

“I knew I was going to do as much as I could to help the baby. My GP is very informative and talked me through it all. I had the flu vaccine to protect myself, so I thought why would I not do the best for the baby too? 

“I would tell people who are unsure to read up as much as they can so they can make so they make an informed decision. I was so close to dying at eight weeks that I would absolutely hate that to happen to my tiny baby. The vaccine is there to protect your baby from what is a very serious illness.” 

Nikki Foley

Mum-of-two Nikki Foley, who is expecting her third child, was also struck down with the illness when she was an infant. 

Nikki, who lives in Blessington with her husband Des and two children Zach (4), and Alex (11 months), explains,

“I had the whooping cough when I was 11-months-old and my parents said it was the scariest time of their lives. They didn’t sleep for six weeks and took turns to watch me in case I had a coughing fit. They said coughing fits would make my lips turn blue. I had to be lifted from my cot during these fits. I had childhood asthma until I was in my late teens, and although unproven, my mam was always convinced I got it due to having whooping cough.

“I am very pro vaccinations and herd immunity — given any opportunity to protect my children, I would take it. I would always encourage people to get vaccinated once they’ve done their own research.

“I don’t think I would recognise the symptoms [of whooping cough]; to be honest, I’m not sure many would, I don’t think they’re widely well know.”

Hoping to make the public aware of the symptoms is Dr Phil Jennings (right), director of public health and the child health lead in the Health and Wellbeing division of the Health Service Executive (HSE).

“Whooping cough is highly infectious.  It starts mainly with a runny nose. After 1-2 weeks, the cough is more obvious and comes in severe intermittent bouts of coughing.  This can last for two to three  months.

Highlighting the importance of the vaccine, Dr Jennings, adds: “It is important to keep babies away from anyone with a cough until they have had their routine primary childhood vaccinations.

“Whooping cough is a vaccine preventable disease, and it is very important that we all recognise that this infection is still a risk to small babies who should be protected as much as is possible. It should be noted that the rates of uptake of childhood vaccinations in Longford is among the highest in Ireland.”

Caused by a bacterium called Bordetella pertussis, which can be passed from person to person through droplets in the air from coughing and sneezing, there is strong evidence to suggest that waning immunity among older children and adults, who were vaccinated against the disease, could be a reason behind the increase,

 “The HSE urges that we all proactively encourage necessary vaccinations in order to prevent further vaccine-preventable deaths and serious illnesses in children.”

The National Immunisation Advisory Committee recommends that all pregnant women should receive the pertussis vaccine in every pregnancy.

“Whooping cough vaccination in pregnancy protects babies under two months of age who have not started on their vaccination schedule.

“To be most effective at protecting baby, the vaccine should be given between 16 and 36 weeks of each pregnancy. The vaccine stimulates the mother’s immune system to produce high levels of antibodies to the whooping cough bacteria. These antibodies will also pass to her baby in the womb and protect that baby during the first few months of life.

“However, if a mother has not been vaccinated by the 36th week of her pregnancy, it is still a good idea to get vaccinated. Vaccination at this stage will protect her from getting the whooping cough, and therefore, passing it onto her new baby.

“In light of the increased number of whooping cough cases in Co Longford, we have made further recommendations to protect young babies:

Protecting your baby from whooping cough:

• All mothers with babies under six months of age should be vaccinated against pertussis infection — these babies are still incompletely vaccinated themselves against whooping cough and so need to be cocooned from infection.

• All household adult-contacts living with the baby should be vaccinated from pertussis if they have not received a whooping cough-containing vaccine within the last 10 years — this is to protect the baby from infection, by protecting the adult contacts (cocooning).

• Check that all other children in families with babies less than six months of age are up-to-date with their vaccinations — as per the national childhood vaccination programme. If they have fallen behind for any reason, please speak to your GP as soon as possible. The vaccine is safe to get if the mother is going to, or is, breastfeeding.

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