Should all children get the flu jab?

November 18, 2011 by
UPDATED: Read the update >   Family, Health   No Comments Yet

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At my Hampshire school gates, the flu jab is a topic of fervent debate. We mums seem to be mostly for it. According to the website Mumsnet, we’re not alone. Four in 10 parents surveyed think all children should be offered a seasonal influenza vaccine. Six out of 10 parents said that they, their partner or other children in the household had fallen ill after a child had the flu. Nearly half said that they or their partner had to take time off work to look after a sick child.

Currently, the NHS only offers vaccination to under-18s (and over six months old) with underlying health conditions, such as asthma or congenital heart disease. Adults with the same health concerns, the pregnant and over-65s are similarly protected. But, in the US, the vaccination is recommended for all ages, regardless of health status, and in Austria, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Romania, Slovenia, and Slovakia, health authorities advise at least some level of childhood vaccination. Last year, the Central European Vaccination Advisory Group (CEVAG) recommended introducing universal influenza vaccination for all children from six months old, with “special attention needed for children up to 60 months of age”. Add to that a warning by leading virologist Prof John Oxford that Europe could face a rise in seasonal flu cases. Last year, up to 10 per cent of children under 14 were hit with flu, with 70 fatal cases in this age group, according to the Healthcare Protection Agency (HPA).

So should we vaccinate our children? The government body, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), is still weighing up the research, but the most recent HPA study is positive about the prospect.

Dr George Kassianos, of the Royal College of General Practitioners, is hopeful that the JCVI will decide in favour of childhood vaccination. “This is a win-win situation. Children are protected by vaccination and then less likely to spread it to family, friends and school. Japanese research shows that for every 420 children vaccinated, one elderly death is prevented. There are huge benefits.’’

Surely letting your child catch the flu builds up their general immunity? “Not necessarily,” Dr Kassianos says. “Healthy children are just as much at risk of dying from flu as anyone else (although not more so). And flu mutates every year, so you don’t gain protection.” For that reason, of course, vaccination must take place every year.

He says that both adults and children may suffer a brief post-vaccination flu-like illness lasting two to three days (as opposed to two-three weeks with the illness) but that shouldn’t put parents off.

This winter’s flu vaccination protects against the same three strains of flu as last year’s vaccines, including the H1N1 strain of the flu virus, that caused the 2009 swine flu pandemic.

So where can I get my daughter protected? My own GP is not allowed to charge me for non-travel related vaccinations. Nor will clinics run by Boots (£12.99 per vaccination) or Asda (£7) vaccinate the under-16s. Dr Kassianos suggests trying a different local practice or finding a private GP, while www.flujabs.org offers family vaccinations with individual jabs starting from £22.50).

NHS advice on flu jabs

UPDATE GP magazine has revealed today (May 30 2012) that government ministers now believe that all children should be vaccinated against flu from the age of five to stop them spreading the illness among their families. According to the minutes of a meeting of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation last month, vaccinating children would be both “cost effective” and prevent serious illness in adults. The minutes state: “Members considered that an extension of the annual influenza vaccination programme should include school-aged children.” The committee, which includes leading paediatricians, said the programme would be cost effective but there are not enough school nurses to implement it at present. It cautioned that the plan would be received with ‘very mixed opinions by parents’ and that health professionals could also object. Binding recommendations will be produced at the Committee’s next meeting.

About the Author

Victoria Lambert has been a journalist for more than 20 years, and specialises in health and medical matters. She writes for the Telegraph, the Times, the Sunday Times, the Guardian, the Mail and the Mail on Sunday. She contributes to Saga, Geographical and First Eleven magazines – where she is the agony aunt.

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