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Health Minister Carolyn Bertram announced the expanded program Friday. (CBC)

Prince Edward Island is expanding a vaccine program to protect newborns against the spread of pertussis, better known as whooping cough.

The program will focus on offering a free booster dose to babies' parents, as well as those who have not had an adult dose and to those who will be in close contact with a baby.

"A safe and effective vaccine to prevent pertussis is available, so we have expanded our vaccination program to improve protection for newborns," said Health Minister Carolyn Bertram

Pertussis is a serious infection of the lungs and upper airway caused by a bacterium, and spread easily by coughing, sneezing and close contact.

Newborns can become extremely ill and develop serious complications such as pneumonia, breathing difficulties, convulsions and even permanent brain damage.

Dr. Heather Morrison, the Island's chief public health officer, said there has been a high rate of recurrence in North America, and some recent infant deaths in both western Canada and the United States.

Infants in Prince Edward Island are routinely immunized against pertussis at ages two, four, six and 18 months.