The Department of Health (DH) is so concerned about the recent rise in whooping cough cases recorded in England and Wales that is is considering expanding the vaccination programme to newborn babies, pregnant women and their families.

According to new figures released by the Health Protection Agency (HPA) a total of 3,523 cases have been reported this year, compared to 1,118 in 2011 and just 908 in 2008 - the last peak in the figures before the current outbreak.

Cases in babies are up, with 235 reported in those under three months old - compared to 112 in 2008 - resulting in six fatalities. Children do not get the benefits of vaccination against whooping cough until they are about four months old, meaning they are especially vulnerable to the infectious pertussis bacteria before this period. Whooping cough, which is an infection of the respiratory system, is characterised by severe coughing spells, which can sometimes end in a "whooping" sound when the person breathes in.

Increased numbers of teenagers and adults have also been affected, although their symptoms are usually milder (akin to a bad, prolonged cough) than in children and infants.

A Department of Health spokesman said: "We continue to see high uptake of vaccination against whooping cough and are investigating the recent increase in cases. This highlights the importance of vaccination against this and other illnesses.

"The joint committee on vaccination and immunisation is looking at whether more people need to be vaccinated. Careful consideration is always needed around expanding any programme.

"Parents should make sure their children are up to date with all vaccinations, and should speak to their GP if they need advice."

Louise Brown, of the HPA added: "'We are seeing lots of whooping cough in other countries, it is not specific to the UK.

"The main rise is in teenagers and adults, and although they may have been vaccinated the effect of that may have waned, making them vulnerable to milder forms of the illness."

Figures bear these comments out. An Australian study found the share of whooping cough cases has jumped from 31 percent to 84 percent in the last 10 years. In the US a 2010 epidemic that hit California, counted more than 9,000 cases, which included 10 infant deaths.

Story posted by Robert Mair and updated by Penny Hosie on 03/09/2012