Since October 2012 pregnant women in the UK have been offered the pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine to help protect their newborn babies against this serious and life-threatening disease. The vaccine has been given between weeks 28 and 32 of pregnancy, which was thought to be the best time for antibodies to be made and passed from the mother to the baby across the placenta. Now Public Health England is updating its advice about the timing of vaccination: women will be able to get the pertussis vaccine any time between week 16 and week 32 of pregnancy.
Typically, it’s expected that it will be offered at the time of the routine 20-week scan to make sure as many pregnant women as possible take advantage of the vaccine. This advice is based on a new study by Swiss researchers which showed that more antibodies crossed from the mother to the baby when the pertussis vaccine was given earlier in pregnancy.
The programme to vaccinate pregnant women against pertussis has been extremely effective in preventing cases of pertussis in babies under 3 months of age. 14 babies in this age group died of pertussis in 2012, but this number fell to 3 in 2014 (figures for 2015 have yet to be confirmed). However, in other age groups the levels of pertussis are still higher than before the epidemic started in 2012. It is therefore critically important that women are offered pertussis vaccination in each and every pregnancy.
An additional change introduced today is that pregnant women will no longer be offered screening for rubella susceptibility (a blood test offered to all pregnant women to establish whether they are immune to rubella). This reflects the great success of the MMR vaccine in reducing transmission of the rubella virus to almost zero. MMR vaccination rates are almost 94% in the UK, which means that pregnant women are protected from rubella by herd immunity. The main concern for pregnant women who catch rubella in pregnancy is congenital rubella syndrome. However, in 2011, a review by the UK National Screening Committee (UK NSC) found that the UK incidence of congenital rubella syndrome had fallen below 1 case per 100,000 live births. According to World Health Organization criteria, this effectively means the disease has been eliminated. The UK NSC therefore recommended that the screening programme should stop. See the Public Health England statement for more information. Women of child-bearing age will still be offered the MMR vaccine if they have not already had it, or are not sure if they have had it.