“The flu is more severe than many parents think. Many parents think of the flu as a bit of a misery: you get it, get over it and – as a result – get immunity. But a surprisingly large number of children, particularly younger children, get much sicker than that and require hospitalization,” shares Professor John Watson, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for the Department of Health in England
What’s more, children are not only at high risk from the flu themselves but also the most likely age group to spread the flu to others.
New children’s vaccination program shows positive results
In 2013/14 the Department of Health in England began rolling out a special children’s flu immunization program that aims to eventually offer all children up to the age of 17 in England a flu vaccination.
In the first year of the new program, all two- and three-year-olds were offered a live-attenuated vaccine, which is taken by sniffing. In addition, geographical vaccination pilots were carried out in primary school-aged children. Last year, the vaccine was offered to all children aged between two and four, with pilots in primary and secondary school-aged children.
Early results published in England’s 2015/16 Flu Plan showed the pilot programs had a positive impact on flu transmission.
For 2015/16, the attenuated vaccine is being offered to all children between the ages of two and six. In the coming years, the Department will expand entitlement, working up the age range. Similar programs are being rolled out in other parts of the UK: Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
A live-attenuated vaccine
Previously the Department only offered the flu vaccine to children at greater risk of complications from flu: children with long-term health conditions such as diabetes, asthma, heart disease or lung disease, for whom getting the flu can be very serious. But uptake was not as high as the Department would have liked.
“Vaccination was lower than other childhood programs such as diphtheria, tetanus, and measles,” Professor Watson told us. “Many parents don’t ensure their children get immunized against the flu because they don’t understand the risk and because of the common misconception that the vaccine gives you the flu.”
In England, a live-attenuated vaccine that is administered as a nasal spray has superseded the inactivated injectable vaccine. “We believe it provides a higher level of protection in children, better protection against drifted strains and better indirect protection – it is more effective in reducing transmission to other members of the population, including siblings and fellow children who are not immunized,” explains Professor Watson.
The vaccine induces a bit of infection localized to the nose, but not beyond that, as it’s a cold- adapted virus and so doesn’t cause any illness once it reaches the warmth of the body.
A positive attitude reassures parents
Once the children’s program has been fully implemented, it is expected to avert many of the cases of severe flu and flu-related deaths in vulnerable people of all ages: children, older adults and people in clinical risk groups.
The pilots have shown that a minimum uptake of 40% in children is achievable. The authors of the Flu Plan expect uptake levels of between 40% and 60% and note that these should be consistent across all localities and sectors of the population.
Healthcare professionals will play a key role in helping England achieve those targets. Dr. Helen Lovell, Program Lead, Seasonal Flu at the Department of Health in England explains why. “One of the things that influences parents most is the attitude of the healthcare professional. If those members of staff give positive reassurance to families about the vaccine – if they are positive about the benefits and if they have had the vaccine themselves – that has the biggest influence.”
Professor Watson also addressed some of the recent media stories around the effectiveness of the 2014/15 vaccination. “Last year one of the strains selected for the flu vaccine was not well matched to the virus that subsequently circulated, but was then updated. We are as confident as we can be at this stage that we won’t see a similar problem this year.”
Flu vaccination remains the best way to protect our children from flu. HCPs will play a vital role this year in encouraging parents to have their children vaccinated.