This year, it is more important than ever that we do everything we can to protect the population and the NHS from flu.
Flu can be very serious and puts significant pressure on the NHS every winter – we see thousands of hospitalisations and deaths from flu in a typical year. Of course, this is anything but a typical year and we expect flu and COVID-19 to circulate at the same time.
People most at risk from flu are also vulnerable to COVID-19.
Research from PHE suggests that people infected with both flu and coronavirus between January and April of this year were more at risk of severe illness and death. Thankfully, we have a good vaccine that helps protect us from flu and we must do all we can to ensure high uptake of the flu vaccine in all eligible groups.
The importance of vaccinating children
A vital part of protecting the whole population from flu is to vaccinate children, who we know are ‘super-spreaders’, passing the virus more easily to those around them. This differs from COVID-19, where the overwhelming majority of children experience mild or no symptoms and transmit no more than adults.
Flu can be an extremely unpleasant illness in children, with those under the age of 5 being more likely to be hospitalised due to flu than any other age group. Vaccinating children helps protect them in the first instance, so that they can stay in school and parents don’t have to take time off work to look after them. It also stops them from passing on flu to older relatives and other vulnerable groups, who can suffer from the complications of flu.
This means that the childhood flu vaccine helps to prevent thousands of hospitalisations and deaths from flu and helps protect the NHS every winter.
Last year, over 4 million children received the flu vaccine in England and for the 2020/21 season, the NHS aims to vaccinate more than 5 million.
Since the launch of the childhood flu programme in 2013, we have seen a year-on-year increase in vaccine uptake in schools and research has shown that the programme has reduced school absences, which is important given the interruptions pupils have already faced this year.
It will also help reduce disruptions to schools by removing a preventable cause of absence as schools work hard to manage COVID-19.
What’s new this year?
This year, we are continuing to offer the free flu vaccine to all primary school-aged children. Children aged 2 to 3 years old (provided they were this age on 31 August 2020) are also eligible and can get their vaccine through their GP practice. In addition, for the first time this year, nearly 600,000 Year 7 children will also be eligible and offered the vaccine in secondary school.
It is important to stress that all children aged between 6 months and 17 years with a long-term health condition are also eligible for the flu vaccine.
We know from research into the first three years of the childhood flu programme that, in areas where the flu vaccine was piloted amongst primary school-aged children, there was an 85% reduction in hospital admissions due to flu. There was also a knock-on effect on GP consultations, with adults having 63% fewer consultations compared to areas where the vaccine wasn’t offered.
The increase in eligible children this year is intended to put us in the best possible position this winter, when we expect flu and COVID-19 to be circulating at the same time.
The flu vaccine for children is given as a nasal spray, which is quick and painless. Last year, it was shown to have reduced the risk of vaccinated children getting flu by 45%. Children who catch flu after vaccination are less likely to be seriously ill or be admitted to hospital.
Some children cannot have the nasal spray vaccine, such as those with a severely weakened immune system. These children are in the clinical high-risk group for flu and are eligible to have the injectable flu vaccine instead. Advice can be sought from the healthcare professional offering vaccination.
Children aged 2 to 3 years old are vaccinated at their GP practice. Those aged 4 to 11 years old in reception class and school years 1 to 7 are vaccinated in school.
In schools, the programme is delivered by a fully qualified NHS healthcare team, including nurses, healthcare support workers and administrative staff. They may be part of the school health service or from a specialist NHS immunisation team.
We all need to give parents of eligible 2 and 3 year-olds the right advice and encouragement to arrange flu vaccination for their children by booking an appointment at their GP practice. We should also encourage parents of school-aged children in an eligible group to look out for, sign and return the consent form to the school.
For parents of children who have an underlying health condition, it is particularly important that they get the vaccine either at their GP practice or through school (if they are in the age group that is being offered the vaccine at school).
The more children we vaccinate this year, the more people we can protect and the bigger the positive impact we can have to help the NHS this winter.
The NHS website has more information on flu and the vaccination programme.