PREGNANT women in Oxfordshire will be offered a whooping cough vaccine to protect their babies from an escalating outbreak of the disease.

Very young babies are at the greatest risk of serious complications, which can stop the baby breathing or lead to pneumonia, brain damage, weight loss and even death.

Figures specifically for Oxfordshire cases are not yet available, but ten babies have died in the UK this year.

Nationally there are surges in whooping cough cases every three to four years.

The latest outbreak started at the end of 2011 and is already the worst for more than a decade with more than 1,250 cases reported by August this year.

The injection, which will be available from GP surgeries from Monday, should boost a mother’s defences to whooping cough. This immunity will then be passed on to the baby.

Rosemary de Wilde, Immunisation Manager for NHS Oxfordshire, the county’s primary care trust, said: “We would encourage all women who are between 28-38 weeks pregnant to get in touch with their GP practice for more information about the vaccination since whooping cough can be a very serious illness for babies.”

Babies under six months of age are the most vulnerable as they are too young to be protected by routine vaccination, which starts at two months of age.