PREGNANT women in the North West will be offered whooping cough vaccinations to protect their newborn babies.

The move follows a rise in cases and deaths among young infants, with the Health Protection Agency (HPA) confirming that there 301 cases in the North West in the first eight months of this year, compared to 57 in 2011 and 39 in 2010.

Due to begin next week, the programme aims to boost the short-term immunity passed on by pregnant women to protect their newborn babies — who normally cannot be vaccinated until they are two-months-old.

Dr Mary Ramsay, head of Immunisation at the HPA, said: “We have been very concerned about the continuing increase in whooping cough cases and related deaths.

“We welcome the urgent measure from the Department of Health to minimise the harm from whooping cough, particularly in young infants, and we encourage all pregnant women to ensure they receive the vaccination to give their baby the best protection against whooping cough.

“It’s also important we continue to remind all parents to ensure their children are vaccinated against whooping cough to continue their protection through childhood.

“Parents should also be alert to the signs and symptoms — which include severe coughing fits accompanied by the characteristic “whoop” sound in young children but as a prolonged cough in older children or adults.

“It is also advisable to keep their babies away from older siblings or adults who have the infection.”

In the first eight months of this year 302 cases were reported in infants under 12 weeks of age – more than double the 115 cases reported in the same period in 2011. There were nine deaths of young children in the same period – up from seven in the whole of 2011.

From January to August 2012, 4,791 cases in all ages were reported – three times more than the whole of 2011 which saw 1118 cases.

Vaccines will be offered to women between 28 and 38 weeks of pregancy during routine antenatal appointments with a nurse, midwife or GP.

Even if women have previously been immunised they will be encouraged to be vaccinated again to boost their immunity.