Whooping cough immunisation

Whooping cough immunisation

The best way to protect your baby against whooping cough is to immunise them on time.

Whooping cough - a baby in Starship's Intensive Care

A doctor at Starship Children's Hospital talks about a baby with whooping cough in Starship's Intensive Care Unit. At the time of filming in 2012, the baby was 8 weeks old and had been seriously ill in hospital for about 6 weeks.

Key points to remember

  • whooping cough epidemics happen every 3 to 4 years
  • babies under 1 year old can become very ill and may end up in hospital - this risk increases with younger infants
  • immunisation during pregnancy is free and mum passes her protective antibodies on to baby to provide early but temporary protection
  • the best way to protect your older baby against whooping cough is to immunise them on time (at 6 weeks, 3 months and 5 months old)
  • infants can catch whooping cough from family members so make sure you, your older children and extended family are up-to-date with immunisations
  • keep your baby away from anyone with a cough, even if they and baby are fully immunised
  • breastfeeding does not prevent whooping cough

What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough can be a serious disease in children, especially those who haven't been immunised and are less than 1 year old.

Children with this illness can have coughing spasms (click on this link to listen to someone with whooping cough), struggle to breathe, vomit or go blue with the cough. Some develop pneumonia.

Whooping cough in very young infants is unpredictable and they can rapidly become very sick.

  • babies under 1 year of age hospitalised with whooping cough have a 1 in 10 chance of ending up in the paediatric intensive care unit
  • if they end up there, they have a 1 in 6 chance of either dying or being left with brain damage or lung damage

How do babies catch whooping cough?

Infected pre-school and school-aged children, adolescents and adults pass the infection on to unprotected babies who are most at risk of a severe or life-threatening whooping cough illness. In fact, it is most often infected parents who pass the infection on to their young babies.

Mackenzie was just 7 weeks old when she became ill with whooping cough, early in 2012. She was admitted to hospital where she spent 10 days in isolation. Mackenzie's Mum, Anna Gibson, says they are pretty sure Mackenzie's Dad gave her whooping cough but it was too late by the time they realised he had it. Mackenzie has fully recovered now but Anna wants to tell her story so that other parents don't have to go through the same experience.

Is whooping cough common in New Zealand?

Whooping cough is not under control in New Zealand and it is still a problem worldwide. There are epidemics every 3 to 4 years with several thousand cases (mostly young children) reported in each epidemic. Whooping cough in older adolescents and adults often goes unrecognised and is often under reported. Up to a third of adolescents and young adults with a long-lasting cough have evidence of recent whooping cough infection.


In the above video, filmed in 2012 during a whooping cough epidemic, health professionals talk about how severe whooping cough can be, particularly in young babies, and the importance of immunisation to protect them.

How can I protect my baby?

Remember that if your baby does catch whooping cough, it can last for weeks or months. Antibiotics are not effective in stopping the cough once it has started. In fact, there is no medicine that will stop the cough once it has started.   

Immunisation is the best way to protect your baby against whooping cough. 

Immunisation during pregnancy

Getting immunised between 28 and 38 weeks of pregnancy means you can pass on your immunity to your baby when they're most vulnerable. It helps to protect baby until their first immunisations. It also means you are protected from catching whooping cough. It may reduce the chances of you passing whooping cough to your newborn baby when they are most vulnerable.

The whooping cough vaccine is safe for use in pregnancy. The vaccine itself doesn't get passed on to your baby, but your immunity to whooping cough does.

Immunise your baby on time

The whooping cough vaccine is given at the following ages:

  • 6 weeks
  • 3 months
  • 5 months

Immunity from both having had the disease naturally and the vaccine lessens over time so booster doses are needed for longer-term protection and to minimise the spread to vulnerable babies. Booster doses are given to children at the following ages:

  • 4 years
  • 11 years

Young infants are most at risk of getting very sick from whooping cough so it is important to:

  • begin immunisation at 6 weeks of age, and
  • complete the first 3 doses on time to build the maximum protection

Does breastfeeding protect my baby from whooping cough?

Many parents are not aware that a baby is born with no maternal protection from whooping cough unless mother has had recent immunisation in pregnancy. While breastfeeding protects babies against many infections, it does not provide a baby with protection against whooping cough.

Can I delay immunising my baby against whooping cough?

Delay in giving routine childhood immunisations increases children’s chances of being hospitalised with whooping cough. A New Zealand reality is that alternative immunisation literature, often given to first-time parents, recommends delaying the start of immunisation. Delay in any of the 3 whooping cough vaccine doses given in the first year of life results in a 5 times increased risk of an infant needing to be hospitalised if they get whooping cough. Even premature babies can be immunised safely on time.

How can adults help protect babies from whooping cough?

  • infants can catch whooping cough from family members so make sure you, your older children and extended family/whānau are up-to-date with immunisations. This may help reduce the risk but should not be seen as an alternative to immunisation in pregnancy or getting baby immunised on time
  • pregnant women can get a whooping cough booster vaccination for free. The vaccine itself doesn't get passed on to babies, but the mother's immunity to whooping cough does. This is the most effective way to prevent whooping cough in very young infants
  • other adult family members can receive booster vaccinations for a cost. Whooping cough immunisation is recommended for adults who live with or care for infants under 12 months of age – even if the baby has been fully immunised 

Where can adults go to get a whooping cough booster?

  • the whooping cough vaccine is given as an injection
  • vaccines are usually given by the practice nurse at your family doctor's surgery
  • the vaccine to protect against whooping cough is a combined vaccine - the vaccine also offers protection against diphtheria and tetanus

This page last reviewed 30 March 2016.
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