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Babies and the most vulnerable are at risk of death if vaccination rates for whooping cough don't increase, according to experts at the University of Oxford.

Five babies have died from the virus in the first quarter of 2024 as cases continue to rise in England. In March, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) reported 1,319 cases in England, after just over 900 in February, showing a sharp increase month on month. 

Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, Director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, and chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, told the BBC Today programme: “we should be very worried about the current situation. If we continue to have high rates of spread and low rates of vaccination, there will be more babies severely affected and sadly there will be more deaths.”  

He explained that while there is an expected rise in cases every three to five years as the natural cycle of the disease progresses, a degree of under vaccination puts the most vulnerable at the greatest risk, and that is babies too young to be vaccinated.

Professor Pollard explained that to protect these most vulnerable we need to focus on increasing vaccination rates in pregnant women.

The Vaccine Knowledge website, a trusted source of information on vaccination straight from the experts, explains that vaccination during weeks 16 to 32 of pregnancy helps the mother make antibodies to fight whooping cough. These antibodies transfer to the baby, who will then be protected from birth until the baby is old enough to receive routine immunisations.

Pregnant women can be vaccinated any time up until labour, but it is advised they are vaccinated before week 32. This is because it takes about two weeks for the immune system to make antibodies and pass these across to the unborn baby.