NZ due for whooping cough epidemic - Experts

New Zealand parents are being warned to immunise themselves, their children, extended families and friends ahead of a potential whooping cough outbreak predicted to start in the next two years.

The highly contagious disease has a cyclical nature, with large-scale outbreaks every two to five years.1 Medical experts say cases could be reduced if Kiwis continue to vaccinate themselves against it.

Vaccination is essential to help protect infants, who have the highest rate of hospitalisation for pertussis (otherwise known as whooping cough),2 and who have a one in ten chance of being admitted to the intensive care unit once hospitalised with the condition.3

“Every few years we see a huge spike of pertussis cases in New Zealand, and with the last one starting in 2011 and only just waning now, we can expect another in the near future,” explains registered nurse and former Waikato DHB immunisation coordinator Kim Hunter.

“We’ve done a good job of getting lots of adults immunised, particularly parents and grandparents, but in 70% of whooping cough cases in babies, they catch it from a parent or close family member, so we need to keep working to prevent that from happening.”

Hunter says infants are worst affected by the disease as their airways are smaller, and they are quickly exhausted by the wracking cough that is a hallmark of the condition.

If they are placed in the intensive care unit, they have a one in six chance of sustaining severe lung damage, brain damage, or of dying from the disease.3

Dr Helen Petousis-Harris – Senior Lecturer, Dept General Practice and Primary Health Care of the University of Auckland – says it’s a key area that Kiwis need to improve in.

“On-time immunisation with whooping-cough vaccine at six weeks, three months and five months of age is one of the most effective way to protect infants against whooping cough,” says Dr Petousis-Harris. “If you put off vaccinating your baby, all you’re doing is leaving them unprotected for a longer period of time.”

“That could mean they have a greater risk of exposure to the disease from outside sources, whether that’s visiting family, members of the public, or even Mum and Dad after they have been out with other people.”

The comments come ahead of Immunisation Week (20-24 April), which aims to raise awareness among parents of young children and babies of the importance of immunisation to protect their child against serious illnesses.

Pertussis is always circulating, even at low levels, in the community,2 and often people are unaware they have the disease. An Auckland study found that 17% of school-aged children who visited the doctor with a persistent cough of two weeks duration or longer had recently had a whooping cough infection – and this was not during the peak of an epidemic.4

Kiwis are urged to visit their GP for more information or to book a booster vaccination.


  1. Ministry of Health. Immunisation Handbook 2014. Wellington, Ministry of Health 2014
  2. Institute of Environmental Science and Research Limited. Pertussis Report: October to December 2014 (opens in a new window). Accessed 27th March 2015
  3. Grant, C (2013) Catching up with the elusive Bordetella Pertussis. Accessed 16 April 2015
  4. Br J Gen Pract 2013;DOI: 10.3399/bjgp13X670705

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