Children to be offered annual flu vaccine

Wednesday July 25 2012

"Flu vaccines for all children," BBC News has reported.

The BBC’s story is based on a report by independent expert advisers, who have told the government that all children from the age of two to 17 should have an annual influenza vaccination.

The recommendations of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) came in the minutes of a meeting it held earlier this year. In these, it sets out how there could be 2,000 fewer deaths from flu each year if just 30% of children had a flu jab. There would also be 11,000 fewer hospitalisations as a result.

However, flu vaccinations are unlikely to be offered to children before October 2014 because of the complexity of such a major vaccination campaign.

As with all vaccinations, flu jabs are optional but strongly recommended.

Find answers to common questions about the child flu vaccine.

What vaccine will be used and is it safe?

A nasal spray vaccine called Fluenz would be the vaccine of choice for children, because it works well in them and has a good safety profile. The effectiveness of other flu vaccines in young children is uncertain.

Fluenz only became available in the UK in small quantities for the first time this year. However, it has been used widely in the United States for about a decade.

The vaccine contains live, but weakened, forms of flu virus which do not cause flu in those vaccinated. The most common side effect of vaccination is a runny nose for a short time.

Most of the 9 million children in this age group will be offered Fluenz. However, it is not suitable for a small number of children who have certain conditions (such as conditions that can weaken the immune system, or having a severe egg allergy). These children will be offered alternative flu vaccines.

The vaccine is also not usually recommended for pregnant women.

Why not extend vaccination to children aged under two?

The nasal spray vaccine is not licensed for children less than two years old. As the effectiveness of other flu vaccines in young children is uncertain, the JCVI didn’t recommend that children younger than two years be part of the extended programme. However, if the extended programme reduces the spread of flu, young children will be protected indirectly.

Why has this decision been made now?

The JCVI carried out a comprehensive review of the evidence including:

  • the health burden of flu on the population
  • the impact and cost effectiveness of extending the flu immunisation programme
  • the efficacy and safety of the vaccine
  • public attitudes

Under the terms of the NHS Constitution, the Department of Health must accept the recommendations and roll out the expanded flu programme.

What did the review of flu vaccination for children find?

The JCVI review found that, while extending the flu vaccination programme would be very costly, it is very likely to be cost effective.

They found that it would protect children from getting flu. However, because children are thought to be good at spreading flu, it is believed that extending the programme may also reduce the spread of flu, protecting many others.

A spokesperson from the JCVI said: “The biggest benefit will be protecting very young infants, older people and those in at risk groups such as those with asthma, multiple sclerosis or heart disease.”

The research suggests we could see, on average, as many as 11,000 fewer hospitalisations as a result of flu, and around 2,000 fewer deaths a year.

The JCVI based its findings on an unpublished, but peer reviewed study carried out by the Health Protection Agency and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.