As we head into flu season the HSE is launching its 2021 flu immunisation programme for children from October 18th. And with midterm break just around the corner, parents can book a flu vaccine for their children aged 2-17, free of charge with their GP or pharmacist.
Like last year, the vaccine will be delivered by nasal spray, but the HSE will be hoping for a better uptake this time. In 2020, 600,000 doses were purchased for children in Ireland, but 120,000 doses were eventually destroyed after the uptake rate was lower than anticipated.
Dr Lucy Jessop, Director of the National Immunisation Office, explains the hows, whys and importance of getting children vaccinated against flu this winter.
Are all children eligible to receive the flu vaccine?
“The nasal flu vaccine for children this year is for any child aged 2-17 years. It doesn’t matter if they have a risk condition or not. It’s free for everybody [aged 2-17], the administration and the vaccine.”
Why a nasal spray vaccine?
“It’s a live vaccine so it does actually provide better protection than the injectable vaccine. For children, it’s much nicer having a nasal vaccine, just a couple of squirts up the nose rather than a needle. Combined with it being a better vaccine, for most children it’s a good option.”
But there was no flu last year, so what’s different this year?
“Last year was a very unusual year, there wasn’t really any international travel. Flu would usually come to Ireland from the southern hemisphere . . . There wasn’t any travel and we were all taking the precautions, staying away from each other, working from home, wearing masks, increased washing our hands. So really flu didn’t have a chance to circulate last year, but this year is different obviously. Now international travel is back. We imagine from October 22nd quite a lot of the restrictions are going to be lifted, so there’s much more chance that flu might be able to circulate in this coming year and obviously because we didn’t have any flu last year, people’s natural immunity will have got less. So it’s extra important, particularly if you’re in a risk group to get vaccinated this year.”
Do children really need to be vaccinated against flu?
"The World Health Organisation has recommended for quite some time that children under five are a particular priority group because of the risk of severe disease. Children are actually twice as likely to get the flu than adults, and they're more likely to get the severe complications and they also transmit it for more days. They're not only protecting themselves, but they're protecting the people around them by being vaccinated."
What sort of complications can arise for children from the flu?
“There’s the normal things that you would think of, the fever, chills, headaches, joint pains and fatigue and obviously children having to take time off school. Children can also get gastrointestinal symptoms like vomiting and diarrhoea and then complications can be things like bronchitis and pneumonia and ear infections, and less common, meningitis or encephalitis (inflammation of the brain and the lining of the brain), so it can be quite serious in children.
“Most people think of it as just a mild disease but it can be quite serious and we know our children have missed such a lot of time from school . . . anything that can keep them in education would be important.”
What if your child has recently received other vaccinations? Do they need to wait?
“No. There’s no need to leave any gap at all. They can even be given on the same day.”
But what about vaccine ‘overload’?
“I know some people worry about that, but actually our bodies are exposed to all sorts of different bacteria and viruses every day and they’re able to cope. The vaccines we give them as babies, we do protect them against quite a number of conditions very early on in life and babies cope very well with those vaccines. The diseases that they protect against can be so serious, it’s very important that they get those vaccines together. Similarly with these vaccines, they’re very small doses that the body is responding to, and the body is very able to make responses to all those things at the same time.”
If a child was already vaccinated against flu last year, why is vaccination again necessary?
“Everybody is recommended to have the flu vaccine every year. That’s because we know the flu virus changes every year. And so the World Health Organisation gives recommendations as to which strains should be in the vaccine each year. This year, as usual, they have changed those strains looking at the flu that was around in the southern hemisphere.”
How effective is the flu vaccine in children?
“The flu vaccine is between 40-90 per cent effective, depending on the year. It is the best protection that we have. This live vaccine that we give to the children, because it’s live, it tends to give a more rounded response in the child, so it gives them a better protection than the injectable vaccine.”
It’s cold and flu season, and Covid is still here, so how can parents judge if a child should stay at home or go to school?
“In terms of runny noses and sneezing, new advice out to parents [is] that if your child has just a runny nose and a bit of sneezing and they’re otherwise well, then they can go to school. But if they have any other symptoms or they’re feeling ‘off form’ then you do need to keep them at home.”
How safe is the flu vaccine for children?
“The flu vaccine is very safe. It’s been used for a number of years, in the UK from 2013 and even before that in America and other countries. It’s a very safe vaccine.”
Are there any side effects to the flu vaccine in children?
“They’re usually very mild and certainly self-limiting. So, sometimes you might get a runny nose or a blocked nose, headaches, muscle aches, tiredness or loss of appetite. Occasionally they might get fevers, but it’s usually mild and goes away very quickly.”
Read: Where have all the other viruses gone?