Pregnant women are to be vaccinated against whooping cough, health officials said, after the biggest outbreak of the illness for two decades claimed the lives of nine babies.
So far this year nine infants under the age of three months have died as a result of the infectious disease - including eight in England and one in Northern Ireland.
There have been 4,791 confirmed cases in England and Wales between January and August - four times more than the total figure for 2011, when there were 1,118 cases, the Health Protection Agency (HPA) said.
Chief Medical Officer Professor Dame Sally Davies, the Government’s principal medical adviser, said that mothers-to-be will be offered the vaccination to protect their newborn babies.
Youngsters cannot receive the jab until they are two months old.
Vaccinating their mothers before they are born will boost their immunity until they reach the age they can get the injection themselves, Dame Sally said.
From Monday, women across the UK who are between 28 and 38 weeks pregnant will be offered the vaccination. Increases in whooping cough are usually seen every three to four years.
The last rise in the number of confirmed cases was recorded in 2008.
The largest number of cases have been in those over the age of 15 but there has also been a sharp rise in whooping cough in babies aged under three months.
Between January and August there were 302 cases reported in babies under three months, compared with just 115 cases in the whole of 2011.
Prof Davies said: “Whooping cough is highly contagious and newborns are particularly vulnerable. It’s vital that babies are protected from the day they are born - that’s why we are offering the vaccine to all pregnant women.
“The idea is, because very young babies can’t make an immune response - an antibody against the vaccine - we are going to give this vaccine to the mothers so they make an antibody against it which will travel across the placenta into the baby.
“This will protect the baby from whooping cough up to the time of the first immunisation at eight weeks.”
However, the drug which is to be administered, called Repevax, comes with the recommendation: “Limited post-marketing information is available on the safety of administering Repevax to pregnant women. The use of this combined vaccine is not recommended in pregnancy”.
But the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) - the independent panel of vaccine experts which advises the government - said that it has “no concerns” about the safety of the vaccine, which protects against whooping cough, diphtheria, tetanus and polio.
Royal College of Nursing chief executive and general secretary Peter Carter welcomed the immunisation programme. But he added: “Given the speed and scale of this programme, it needs to be appropriately planned, taking into account the capacity and capability of those healthcare workers who will carry out the vaccinations.”
Louise Silverton, deputy general secretary of the Royal College of Midwives, said: “This campaign has our full support.”