The number of newborn babies in the Netherlands who are seriously ill due to whooping cough has been increasingly rapidly in recent weeks. About 110 confirmed cases of whooping cough are now being diagnosed every week among children in the Netherlands, including nearly 20 infants. The spike in infections is primarily occurring in areas with low vaccination coverage, such as in the Dutch ‘Bible belt’. Researchers and doctors at RIVM urge people who have a cough and sniffles to avoid contact with people in the late stages of pregnancy and newborn babies.

Half of affected infants admitted to hospital

Over the past few weeks, RIVM has received more and more reports of babies who have whooping cough. That age group is a cause of particular concern. Babies can become very seriously ill from whooping cough, often requiring hospital admission. Very occasionally, a baby may even die from whooping cough. Over 90% of babies who have whooping cough in 2024 had not been protected by vaccination. Nearly half of these babies were admitted to hospital.

Whooping cough

Whooping cough is a very contagious disease. The infection is caused by bacteria, which produce a toxin that triggers coughing fits. The cough can last for several weeks, sometimes persisting for months. Reported cases of whooping cough have been increasing since June 2023, and the figures are much higher than previous years. This applies to children and adults. About 250 patients with whooping cough are currently being reported every week, compared to 120 weekly in 2019, and 91 in 2018. RIVM suspects that the actual figures are underreported, since not everyone with whooping cough symptoms gets tested.

Recommendations for reducing the spread of whooping cough

To prevent whooping cough in infants and limit the bacteria from spreading, follow these recommendations.

  • For pregnant people:
    Protect yourself and your newborn baby against whooping cough by getting a maternal whooping cough vaccination during pregnancy. 

In the final weeks of your pregnancy, make sure you avoid contact with people who are coughing or sniffling.

  • For parents of newborns and infants:
    Protect your baby against whooping cough by getting the childhood immunisations from the National Vaccination Programme. Get these vaccinations in time.
    If your baby is not yet protected by vaccination, stay alert. If someone in the family has symptoms that could indicate whooping cough – such as a severe hacking cough followed by a high-pitched intake of breath, or intense coughing fits – or if a family member who has had contact with a whooping cough patient then starts coughing, contact your GP.
  • For people who have a cough and sniffles:
    Stay away from people in the final weeks of pregnancy and from babies.

The spread of whooping cough in the Netherlands

Before vaccination against whooping cough was introduced in 1957, whooping cough was common. About 200 children died of the disease every year. Whooping cough cases declined rapidly once the whooping cough vaccine was available. Since 1996, there has been an increase in whooping cough cases again, among children and adults. This is because of a change in the structure of the bacteria. People can catch it more easily now. There were hardly any reported cases of whooping cough between April 2020 and June 2023. It is very likely that the measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 also kept the whooping cough bacteria from spreading. Since hardly anyone was getting whooping cough, no one was building up natural immunity against whooping cough through infection. This may explain why we are now seeing such a sharp increase in whooping cough in all age categories.