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Hong Kong health care and hospitals

Pregnant Hongkongers urged to get whooping cough vaccine as number of cases in city almost doubles leaving some infants in intensive care

  • Health authorities act after number of people infected in city rises to 110 in 2018
  • Among those with disease were 18 infants two months old or below
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 January, 2019, 9:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 January, 2019, 11:04pm

Pregnant women should get the whooping cough vaccine so the effects can be passed to their babies, Hong Kong’s health authorities have said, after a large increase in the number of infected infants in the city.

Last year, 110 people contracted the disease, the highest level since at least 1997 when public records were available. There were 69 cases in 2017, up from 31 in 2016.

Among them, about 44 were infants six months old or below. Eighteen of them were two months old.

“Last year, the number of cases rose to 110 from about 60 in 2017. It was worrying,” said Dr Chow Chun-bong, chairman of the scientific committee on vaccine-preventable diseases under the Centre for Health Protection.

“There were infants two months old or below that needed to be sent to the intensive care units. But no one died.”

The recommendation for pregnant women to take the vaccine was made after a meeting among members of the scientific committee.

People with whooping cough usually have non-specific symptoms such as a running nose, sneezing, slight fever and cough. The cough can gradually become more serious, affecting a person’s eating, drinking and breathing. The bacteria can cause a lung infection and, in the most serious cases, lead to seizures and coma.

At present, infants receive their first free whooping cough vaccine when they are two months old. The problem is that some newborns could be infected with the disease before they get their first jab.

If women receive the jab when they are pregnant, the effect of the vaccines can be passed to the children through breastfeeding, Chow said.

Foreign health authorities have also said that after a pregnant woman receives the vaccine the body will create protective antibodies that will be passed to the baby before birth.

Chow called the rise in the rate of infection “staggering”, and suggested expectant mothers take the vaccine when they are 27 to 34 weeks pregnant.

In 2007, the Hong Kong government followed international practice to adopt a new vaccine that leads to fewer side effects. Critics, though, said the effects of the new vaccine wear off faster than those of the old one.

On this, Chow said the “whole world” had adopted the new vaccine. The old vaccines can lead to side effects such as seizures, while the new ones only lead to slight discomfort.

Asked if the government would provide free jabs for pregnant women, Dr Wong Ka-hing, controller of the Centre for Health Protection, said the authorities needed time to discuss the matter.

In 2010, only five people were infected with whooping cough, rising to 20 in 2012, 30 to 2014 and 31 to 2016.

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Dr Yu Kai-man, a specialist in obstetrics and gynaecology, said symptoms of adults infected with whooping cough might not be obvious, and so they could transmit the disease to young children without realising it.

He said it was not common for private clinics to offer the vaccine to pregnant women, and they would need to buy more to cover a possible increase in the number of women asking for it.

“If the government thinks this vaccine is beneficial to pregnant women and babies, it would be appropriate if those vaccines could be offered in a subsidy basis,” Yu said.