Whooping cough – the vaccination debate

As a partner, you will have an important part to play in decisions surrounding vaccination, and with this in mind, you’ll need to be informed.

You’ve probably heard about whooping cough without necessarily knowing what it is and why vaccination is considered so important. Also called pertussis, whooping cough is a highly contagious bacterial disease that results in prolonged episodes of coughing and choking, which can also make it difficult to breathe. It is transmitted through droplets of saliva or phlegm that are sprayed through coughing or sneezing.

The “whoop” of the name refers to the sound made by the sufferer being forced to gasp for breath, although not all instances of the disease result in this symptom.

The illness usually lasts for 2 to 3 months and can prove fatal, with around 100,000 people a year dying as a result of the illness. However, the number of deaths in the UK is relatively low. For example, in 2012 there were 48,277 cases of whooping cough reported to the Centre for Disease Control, including 20 deaths. Babies under one are at especial risk, with respiratory complications such as pneumonia a particularly cause for concern. It can also cause other serious complications, such as long-term brain damage.

Against this background you may think that the issue of vaccination would be non-contentious. However, some parents remain resistant to the idea of whooping cough vaccination during pregnancy because of concerns that it might harm the child.

Should your partner have the whooping cough vaccination?

In reality, the only serious concerns parents should have regarding this vaccine are, first, that they get it done in time – ideally somewhere between 20 weeks pregnant, following the mid-term scan, and before 32 weeks – and, second, that they continue to ensure regular boosters throughout the life of their child. This latter point is important as immunity can wear off. For example, a 2015 study reported in the American Academy of Pediatrics found the vaccine is 73% effective one year after the 11-year-old booster and only 4 percent effective 2-4 years after the booster.

The importance of vaccination is underlined by Professor Alan Cameron, vice president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, who says that his organisation can “provide reassurance that the whooping cough vaccine is safe for use during pregnancy, with no known adverse side effects for mother or baby”. Similarly, Chief Medical Officer, Prof Dame Sally Davies, describes the vaccination as a “no-brainer”. “We have to do it,” she says.

But are there side effects?

Yes, as with all vaccines there are side effects to the whooping cough vaccine but these are what are described as “local side-effects”, which means that they are minor and relatively transitory. As such, they are unlikely to manifest as little more than redness and swelling around the site of injection on the mother’s arm and perhaps a low fever.

There are, in approximately one in a million doses, chances of more serious side effects, but this is the same with nearly all medicines and vaccines, and health teams are trained to look out for and to effectively treat any sign of severe allergic reaction.

Unfortunately, some people still believe that the vaccine might somehow cause the illness it is designed to prevent. Quite simply, this is impossible because the parts of the vaccine that have agency have been inactivated, meaning that it is biologically impossible for them to cause the diseases they are immunising against.


Whooping cough can undoubtedly be tackled. As with most diseases affecting young children, it is a matter of “herd health”, it just requires more parents to decide in favour of vaccination.

In fact, vaccinations during pregnancy may be the answer to many of the most pressing infant health challenges, including Group B streptococcus, the most common cause of life-threatening infections in newborns, with a vaccination against Group B strep likely available on the NHS within the next decade.

So, if your pregnant partner now asks your opinion on vaccination in pregnancy, you are armed with the information which can help. Good luck!

Important – If you or your child are unwell you should seek medical advice from a professional – contact your GP or visit an A&E department in an emergency. While My BabyManual strives to provide dependable and trusted information on pregnancy and childcare 24/7 via our website pages, we cannot provide individual answers to specific healthcare questions.