Top health officials in Wales have this week issued an urgent call to parents of two and three year olds to get their children vaccinated against flu, with less than a third of those eligible vaccinated so far.
This year’s flu immunisation programme offers a simple nasal spray to help protect young children but it is only effective before the illness strikes. The current free vaccines are available from your GP but all stocks will reach their expiry date by early January after which the likelihood of flu circulating is more likely.
According to the latest statistics, less than a third of the 62,000 two and three year olds eligible have been immunised so far in Wales - just 29%.*
Dr Zed Sibanda, consultant paediatrician at Royal Glamorgan Hospital, explains why this is a concern: “The nasal spray flu vaccine for two and three year olds will expire in December/January, so parents who haven’t had their toddler vaccinated yet should act now.
“Two and three year olds are particularly at risk of serious complications of flu for a number of reasons. Not least, their immune systems are not yet fully developed so they can’t fight off the flu as well older children and adults.
“Flu is easily spread within families and also, because of the nature of play groups, toddlers are often in very close proximity to each other where they are especially susceptible to any circulating germs. Vaccination can help to stop the spread by protecting individuals and creating ‘herd’ immunity.”
For most healthy children, influenza (or ‘flu’) is usually just as unpleasant for children as adults, and usually means a few miserable days at home.
However, parents should be aware that flu can sometimes result in serious complications, especially for young children or those with long term health problems, such as asthma, for whom it can even be life threatening.
As Dr Sibanda explains: “Two and three year olds cannot understand and articulate if they are starting to come down with flu like symptoms – so flu might not be diagnosed until quite late compared to an adult who would be able to assess their own state of health more easily.
“This means more likelihood of potential complications and unnecessary suffering for the child. But this can all be prevented by one simple trip to the GP to for the nasal spray vaccination.”
Dr Ruth Hussey, Wales’s Chief Medical Officer, also urges all parents to take their two or three year old to the GP as soon as possible: “The vaccination is in the form of a nasal spray for two and three year olds, so there are no injections – your child will have nothing to worry about. It is quick, simple and completely pain free.
“The nasal spray is simple, safe and even if a child gets a runny nose or sneezes immediately after the spray, they will still be protected.”
This is the first year of an annual programme that will eventually see all children aged two to sixteen offered the vaccine each Autumn. This is in addition to other eligible groups such as those aged 65 and over, those in ‘at risk’ groups from six months of age with long term health conditions, plus all pregnant women.
“Because this is the first year that the vaccine has been offered routinely to healthy children, awareness and understanding of its benefits and availability are relatively low. It is therefore crucial for parents of two and three year olds to use this opportunity and take their child for the vaccination now,” said Dr Hussey.
Each year flu vaccines are made to match any new circulating strains of flu virus. The flu virus is spread via droplets which are sprayed into the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Contact with contaminated hands or surfaces can also spread infection. It can spread rapidly, especially in closed communities such hospitals, residential homes and, of course, play groups.
The annual flu vaccination programme aims to ensure that the people who need it most get free protection each year against the flu. The reason is to protect vulnerable individuals and those who are most at risk of serious complications of flu. Each year, the ‘flu jab’ is available free of charge to these groups via GPs and some community pharmacies.