Fewer than three quarters of expectant mothers in some parts of Scotland have been vaccinated against whooping cough during pregnancy, according to figures obtained by the Herald.

Health board data shows large regional variations in uptake during in the 12 months to the end of March this year, with coverage ranging from 73% in Tayside and Grampian to more than 95% in Orkney.

Public Health Scotland is set to publish the latest weekly statistics on pertussis infections - better known as whooping cough - later today.


It comes after data revealed that Scotland is in the grip of its biggest whooping cough outbreak in more than a decade, with 2,232 laboratory-confirmed cases up to May 13. 

This compares to 73 known infections during the whole of 2023.

In England, five infants - all under three months old - died as a result of whooping cough between January and March this year.

In Scotland, there have been no recorded whooping cough deaths since 2015, but the current outbreak is expected to get worse over the coming months. 

Whooping cough is spread by the bacteria Bordetella pertussis, which is highly contagious.

As a disease, it is more infectious than Covid and equally as infectious as measles. 

A decline in vaccine coverage as well as a sharp fall in exposure to the disease during the pandemic has been blamed for the current spike in infections sweeping the UK. 

Pregnant women are being urged to come forward for vaccination as this is the best way to protect newborns against pertussis until they are old enough for the jag, which is administered in three rounds at eight, 12 and 16 weeks, with a booster between the ages of three and four.

Getting the vaccine while pregnant means that mothers can pass antibodies onto their developing baby in the womb.

PHS does not collect data on vaccine uptake in pregnancy in the way that it does for childhood immunisations, but the Herald asked each health board in Scotland for their most up to date figures.

NHS Dumfries and Galloway and Highland have not yet responded and NHS Shetland said the data could only be obtained by submitting a freedom of information request, which takes up to 20 working days.

NHS Lothian declined to respond, saying that the figures "are not routinely published by via PHS" and "we would not publish unvalidated management data".

A spokeswoman added that its figures may not be comparable with other areas since "the data may not be gathered in the same way by each board".

The Herald: Health boards, rather than GP surgeries, are now responsible for delivering vaccinations in ScotlandHealth boards, rather than GP surgeries, are now responsible for delivering vaccinations in Scotland (Image: Getty)

Of those which did respond, uptake of pertussis vaccination in pregnancy in 2023/24 was 73% in Tayside and 73.3% in Grampian.

NHS Ayrshire and Arran had the highest coverage of the mainland boards, at 87.2%.

In the islands, uptake was 95.4% in NHS Orkney and 82% for the Western Isles.

For the remaining health boards, vaccine uptake was 77.9% in Lanarkshire, 80.8% in Borders, 82.6% in Forth Valley, 77% in Greater Glasgow and Clyde, and 86% in Fife. 

In England, uptake of the pertussis vaccine in pregnancy is averaging just 60%, but is less than 37% in London. 

The figures come days after Dr Sam Ghebrehewet, head of immunisation and vaccination at Public Health Scotland (PHS), warned that whooping cough infections would continue to increase until the autumn. 

He said: "It is likely to get worse.

"The cycles we have seen over the last 10 years is usually that it starts in the first [quarter of] the calendar year - January, February, March.

"It goes higher and higher and it doesn't peak until the third quarter, so I think it has a long way to go as far as we understand from the previous years.

"I think it's going to increase rather than decrease at this stage."

The Herald: The last major outbreak of whooping cough in Scotland was in 2012 and 2013, with a total of 3,084 cases over a two-year periodThe last major outbreak of whooping cough in Scotland was in 2012 and 2013, with a total of 3,084 cases over a two-year period (Image: PHS)

Other experts - including Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia - has suggested the UK is on the cusp of its worst wave of pertussis in 40 years.  

He said: "It used to be much more common in the last century up until the vaccine was introduced.

"However, this current year looks like we may see more cases than we have seen in any of the last 40 years."

Adam Finn, a professor of paediatrics at Bristol University, said it was "serious epidemic".

He added: "Unfortunately, a significant proportion of pregnant women have not been receiving the vaccine and so we are now seeing severe cases among the infants of these women.

"While the reasons for this are certainly multiple and complex, we owe it to these mothers and their children to ensure that they are offered both timely vaccination and the information and explanation, from someone they understand and trust, to enable them to make the right decision and avoid this dreadful and entirely preventable disease by being immunised.”