Low take-up by children sees nasal flu vaccine extended to teenagers

Doctors ’disappointed’ at lack of demand for vaccine from parents of young children

The nasal flu vaccine is being offered for free by the HSE this year for the first time although the take-up to date has been low.  Photograph: Getty Images

The nasal flu vaccine is being offered for free by the HSE this year for the first time although the take-up to date has been low. Photograph: Getty Images

 

The free nasal flu vaccine is being extended to teenagers after low take-up among the target group of younger children left the Health Service Executive with large amounts of unused stock.

About 600,000 doses of live vaccine were ordered for children aged two to 12 under the new programme, announced by former minister for health Simon Harris last May.

Since October, more than 190,000 of these doses have been administered, his successor Stephen Donnelly said on Friday.

The HSE has pointed out there may be a time lag between the time GPs administer the vaccine and a claim being submitted.

About 460,000 doses have been distributed to GPs and pharmacists. Unused doses will start expiring from mid-January if not administered by then.

Confirming that the vaccine is now being made available free of charge to all children up to the age of 17, Mr Donnelly said: “Getting the flu vaccine is another way to look after your children’s health. Children are more likely than adults to get very sick from the flu, and they also may pass on the virus for a longer period of time than adults.

“By arranging for them to get a free flu vaccine, you will help to protect your children from a potentially serious illness. You will also help others in your family and community by reducing the potential to spread the flu.”

Prof Karina Butler, chair of the National Immunisation Advisory Committee, described the initial uptake for the vaccine among young children as “disappointing”.

“The new vaccine appears to have fallen between the cracks with all the information about Covid,” she said. Some parents seem to have been unaware of its existence, despite an advertising campaign, and that it is free.

“There is still time for parents of children of any age to get it. It’s not too late, as flu is not yet circulating,” she advised

Former Irish Medical Organisation president Dr Ray Walley, who had campaigned for the vaccine to be extended to teenagers, welcomed the decision, which was communicated to GPs on Thursday.

The vaccine, which is being administered by GPs and pharmacists, is being made available to 12-17 year-olds in addition to younger children, immediately. Where effective, it protects a chid getting flu but also from passing it on to others, such as elderly relatives.

On Thursday, the HSE said achieving high coverage for a new vaccine was always challenging in the first year.

Most children’s vaccines are administered through a schools programme but this was not seen as feasible this year because of the disruption caused by Covid-19 to the education system.

“The school vaccination programme was already incredibly stretched. The first year of any new programme is always a learning experience.” Prof Butler said.

Dr Walley told The Irish Times earlier this month that GPs were “shocked” at the lack of demand for the new vaccine, which he described as a “no-brainer” due to its proven efficacy and safety when used in other countries.

“It is safe and effective, it’s been in use internationally for almost 20 years and it’s easy to take, with no needle involved. The vaccine protects children, and it protects others who might be at risk if children passed on a flu infection.”

There have been 41 deaths of children due to flu in the past decade in Ireland, and almost 5,000 hospitalisations.

Anyone showing flu-like symptoms such as cough or fever - which are also Covid-19 symptoms - is required to quarantine pending a test, along with their contacts.