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Health Experts Sound Alarm as Pertussis Cases Surge After COVID-19 Pandemic

Visual Representation for lungs suffering from whopping cough | Credits: Shutterstock

United States: The COVID-19 pandemic officially ended last year; however, concerns linked to pertussis, also known as whooping cough, have emerged in recent months.

Health experts have sounded alarm after a sudden spike in the number of cases reported in different countries of Europe.

The resurgence of the disease, reminiscent of the narratives penned by Charles Dickens, has emerged anew in the Western hemisphere, following a surge in diseases harking back to the Victorian era, such as measles, syphilis, gout, leprosy, and malaria, according to the reports by POLITICO.

In the Czech Republic, where reports of shortages in whooping cough vaccines have surfaced, instances of this disease have reached levels not witnessed in six (6) decades, as per the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). Notably, there has been a substantial uptick in cases in Denmark, Belgium, Spain, and the UK in recent months.

According to Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, the bulk of the upswing over the past few years can be attributed to a return to pre-Covid infection rates. However, this year has witnessed a dramatic surge in infections, poised to surpass any yearly tally recorded in over thirty years.

To offer perspective, while England documented a total of 853 cases in 2023, February of the current year alone saw 913 cases, as reported by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).

The focal point of the current outbreak in Europe is Croatia, which has reported 6,261 cases in the initial two and a half months of this year.

A publication from the British Medical Journal suggests that a decline in vaccination rates is partially responsible for the proliferation.

Across most European nations, infants receive their initial two doses of the combined whooping cough, diphtheria, and tetanus vaccine between two and 12 months, followed by another dose by age two and a final dose between ages 3 and 7, POLITICO outlined.

However, to shield newborns from the disease, pregnant women can also be administered pertussis vaccines. In England, the BMJ notes, uptake among this demographic dropped from over 70 percent in September 2017 to 58 percent in September 2023.

Visual Representation for a child suffering from whopping cough | Credits: Getty Images

This decline is particularly alarming considering the vulnerability of young infants.

Although whooping cough can be debilitating for adults — with “donkey cough,” as it’s known in Serbian due to the distinctive sound sufferers make, potentially causing cracked ribs — pertussis can lead to severe complications in babies.

While teenagers aged 15 to 19 comprise the majority of current cases, “virtually all deaths” in the EU and EEA this year have occurred in infants under three months, according to the ECDC. In recent weeks, there have been four fatalities in the Netherlands, more than double the typical annual rate.

The aftermath of Covid

Europe’s disease agency has also suggested a possible link between the current surge and the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The current increase is potentially linked to lower circulation during the Covid-19 pandemic, combined with suboptimal vaccination uptake in certain groups during the Covid-19 pandemic,” it stated in a March report.

Vaccination remains pivotal in curbing the outbreak, but implementation is proving increasingly challenging, as reported by POLITICO.

Visual Representation for COVID-19 virus

In the UK, five regional health services reported that the pandemic adversely affected vaccination rates, exacerbating a long-standing decline.

“We witnessed a proliferation of misinformation from the anti-vax lobby during the pandemic, and there was a genuine concern among some of us that this misinformation would fuel hesitancy around routine immunization,” remarked Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, to POLITICO.

Head also highlighted the measles outbreak in Europe, largely attributed to dwindling immunization rates.

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