The Public Health Agency (PHA) is calling on parents of pre-school and primary school children to get their kids vaccinated against flu. This will help protect not only them but also those around them, particularly older grandparents or relations with an underlying health condition. Children in particular can increase the spread of the flu virus in the community, but vaccination helps curb this.
Last year, seasonal flu activity was the highest seen since the 2009 pandemic, with 119 cases of flu in intensive care/ high dependency units (ICU/HDU) – more than twice as many as the previous year – and a total of 22 deaths in ICU/ HDU in which a diagnosis of influenza was confirmed.
Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride said: “Last flu season, levels of the illness were higher than in previous years and uptake of the childhood vaccine was down slightly. Flu vaccination plays a vital role in limiting the impact of flu not only on individuals, but it also helps to reduce the spread of the virus among families and in communities.
“We are urging parents to get the free flu vaccine for their children to provide them with the best line of defence against the illness and to help protect their wider family and friends. It’s a quick, painless spray up their nose – just two seconds to provide them with the maximum protection against flu over the winter.”
The flu virus spreads easily and quickly, infecting both adults and children alike. This can lead to days spent in bed rather than being at work or school, causing considerable inconvenience for the whole family, not to mention putting more vulnerable family members at risk. Evidence shows that the flu vaccine for children can provide direct protection to them and will also reduce the amount of flu circulating, thus providing indirect protection for older people and individuals with underlying health conditions.
Dr Lucy Jessop, Consultant in Health Protection at the PHA, explained: “The flu virus spreads through the air when people cough and sneeze without covering their nose and mouth, and because young children don’t always cover their noses or mouths when coughing or sneezing, they can spread the flu virus very quickly, making them ‘super-spreaders’.
“Because the virus spreads easily, pre-school and primary school children are being offered the flu vaccine, giving them the best protection and also helping to protect more vulnerable members of their families too. We would ask parents not to forget to sign and send back the consent form to school for your primary school children, and to make an appointment with your GP for pre-school vaccination, or they may miss out.
“Everyone who is eligible to be vaccinated against flu should see it as a positive step in protecting their health and the health of others around them.
“With higher levels of flu activity last year and the potential for similar this year, it is more important than ever that everyone who is eligible gets vaccinated.
“We are fortunate to have a comprehensive flu vaccination programme, but the benefits may only be realised if a high proportion of the groups who can get the vaccine actually take up the offer.”
Pre-school children in Northern Ireland aged two years and over are eligible to receive the free flu vaccine through their GP. Meanwhile, children in primaries one to seven will be offered the vaccine in school. In addition, people over 65, ‘at risk’ children and adults, and pregnant women, can receive the vaccine at their doctor’s surgery.
Most children receive the vaccine via a quick and painless nasal spray. The nasal vaccine has been shown to provide even greater protection for children than the flu injection. There are a few children who cannot receive the nasal spray and they will be offered the injection instead.
Dr Jessop added: “Traditionally uptake rates for flu vaccination are high in Northern Ireland; however last year we saw a slight drop. We mustn’t become complacent – we need to maintain high rates of uptake every year to maximise protection for our community. It is important that everyone who is eligible for vaccination – whether they are two or 102 – takes up the offer.”
Some GPs may not invite all of their registered patients who are eligible for vaccination directly. If you, or someone in your care, is eligible to be vaccinated but does not receive an invitation, contact your GP to find out more about their flu vaccination clinics.
The vaccine changes each year to cover the strains which are likely to be prevalent over the course of the flu season, so it is important to get immunised annually. As it takes approximately two weeks following vaccination to develop maximum protection against flu, it is important to get vaccinated. If you wait until flu starts circulating, it may be too late for the vaccine to protect you, so get the flu vaccine and stay well this winter.
The flu vaccination programme is part of the wider ‘Stay Well this Winter’ programme operated by the Public Health Agency and the Health and Social Care Board which enables people to take simple steps during the colder months to look after their health.
For further information on the flu vaccine see www.pha.site/fluleaflets
For further information on how to help yourself stay well this winter visit www.nidirect.gov.uk/stay-well