Figures show 78% currently unprotected
Top health officials in Wales have issued an urgent call to parents of two, three and four year olds to get their children vaccinated against flu this winter, with only one in five of those eligible vaccinated so far.
Some parents believe flu does not severely affect children. However figures collected by Public Health Wales show that last winter just as many children were admitted to hospital and intensive care units as adults. Confirmed cases of influenza in children under 15 years of age admitted to hospital in Wales last winter totalled 42 with six of those requiring intensive care. For individuals aged 15 years and over 42 were admitted and six required intensive care. Last winter saw only low levels of flu circulating in the community.
The childhood flu immunisation programme offers a simple nasal spray vaccine to help protect young children, but it is only effective before the illness strikes. The free vaccine is available from your GP but all nasal flu vaccine stocks will reach their expiry date by early January – so time is running out to get your child protected.
According to the latest statistics, only one in every five of the 97,655 two, three and four year olds eligible have been immunised so far in Wales - just 22%.*
Dr Zed Sibanda, consultant paediatrician at Royal Glamorgan Hospital, explains why this is a concern: “The nasal spray flu vaccine for two to four year olds will begin to expire in mid December , so parents who haven’t had their toddler vaccinated yet should act now.
“Two, three and four 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 playgroups, 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’) usually means several miserable days at home in bed, 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: “Young children 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 Richard Roberts, Head of the Vaccine Preventable Diseases Programme at Public Health Wales, also urges all parents to take their two – four year old to the GP as soon as possible: “The flu vaccination for most children is given as a nasal spray, so there are no injections. It is quick, safe, simple and completely pain free.
“Even if a child gets a runny nose or sneezes immediately after the spray, they will still be protected.”
This is the first year that four year olds have been included in the free seasonal flu vaccination campaign, after two and three year olds were first introduced last year. This is part of an annual programme and it is anticipated that when fully implemented all children aged two to sixteen will be 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.
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, playgroups.
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, flu vaccine is available free of charge to these groups via GPs and some community pharmacies, while most eligible children receive a nasal spray vaccination from their GP or school if they are in year 7.
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