The annual NHS flu vaccination programme for children aged 2 to 3 years, school age children and children over 6 months with certain health conditions is getting underway. Parents will receive invites from next week.
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) and NHS England are calling on parents to make sure children's consent forms are completed, and that eligible pre-schoolers are booked in for appointments at the GP practice, to help halt the spread of flu this autumn and winter.
Over 8 million children in reception to year 11 will be offered the free nasal spray flu vaccine, delivered in schools by immunisation teams up and down the country. Children aged 2 and 3 years (on or before 31 August) are eligible for the free nasal spray via their GP practice.
Children aged between 6 months and 2 years with a long-term health condition that makes them at higher risk from flu will be offered a flu vaccine injection instead of the nasal spray. This is because the nasal spray is not licensed for children aged under 2 years.
Flu rebounded last winter after being kept low since March 2020 by COVID-19 control measures. UKHSA's preliminary analysis found that deaths linked to flu last winter were the highest since the 2017 to 2018 season. Over 10,000 children were hospitalised last winter due to the infection. Vaccination effectiveness data from last year showed that the vaccines reduced the risk of hospitalisations by two-thirds.
Flu vaccine is the best protection we have against an unpredictable virus. Flu can be a very unpleasant illness in children causing:
- extreme tiredness
- aching muscles and joints
- stuffy nose
- dry cough
- sore throat
Complications of flu include painful inflammation inside the ear, and pneumonia that makes breathing difficult.
Each winter thousands of children need to go to hospital for treatment, including intensive care, with children aged under 5 years having one of the highest rates of hospital admissions due to flu. By getting vaccinated, your child also protects others around them, including babies, grandparents and people with weak immune systems.
Dr Conall Watson, Public Health Consultant and Lead Flu Epidemiologist at UKHSA, said:
Flu can be more than just an unpleasant illness in children - for some an infection is life-threatening, including kids who are normally very active and healthy. Flu vaccines give vital protection - not just keeping kids well, but also out of hospital. Each winter thousands of children require treatment in hospital for flu or its complications.
Many of these episodes could be prevented by a simple nasal spray. On top of helping to keep your child healthy, the flu vaccine also helps stop the spread of flu in the community - helping to protect those who are more vulnerable and the elderly such as grandparents.
When you get the electronic or paper consent form from the NHS school immunisation team, please make sure you return it, so your child doesn't miss their nasal spray vaccination session. If you have a pre-schooler aged 2 or 3 years on 31 August, you should make an appointment to get their nasal spray vaccination at the GP practice.
NHS Director of Vaccinations and Screening, Steve Russell, said:
With children recently returning to school, it is essential that they are vaccinated against flu as quickly as possible to protect themselves and their vulnerable loved ones.
The fast and easy nasal spray has a proven record of protecting children who need it most, with the NHS offering it to the majority of children this year.
I would encourage anyone with questions to come forward and speak to your GP or other healthcare professionals for advice.
If your child has a medical condition that makes them more at risk from flu, such as asthma or cerebral palsy, you can get them vaccinated at the GP practice if you don't want to wait for the school session. Children who can't have the nasal spray for medical or faith reasons should have an injected flu vaccine instead, also provided free by the NHS.
The nasal spray vaccine does not cause flu, because the viruses in it have been weakened to prevent this from happening, but the weakened viruses help each child to build up immunity. This means vaccinated children will be better able to fight off flu. The vaccine is absorbed very quickly in the nose so even if the child sneezes immediately after having had the spray, there's no need to worry that it hasn't worked.
Side effects of the nasal spray are typically mild if present at all. Children may develop a runny or blocked nose, headache, general tiredness, and some loss of appetite. However, these are much milder than developing flu or complications of flu, and some of these will be due to common cold viruses circulating at the time the flu vaccine is given.
Infections such as flu, RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), norovirus (the winter vomiting bug) and scarlet fever (caused by group A streptococcus) usually start to rise throughout autumn and winter. Keeping children off school when unwell is important to slowing the spread of many illnesses.
If your child is unwell and has a fever, they should stay home from school or nursery until they feel better, and the fever has resolved.
If your child has diarrhoea and/or vomits, they should stay off school or nursery for at least 48 hours after their symptoms clear up.
Professor Kamila Hawthorne, Chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners said:
We are heading into a difficult winter for general practice and the NHS so it's important that we're all as prepared as possible. That's why we welcome the start of the children's flu vaccination programme and are encouraging parents to take up this important opportunity to protect their children.
Getting your child vaccinated not only keeps them safe, but all your family members - particularly older grandparents and great-grandparents who may be vulnerable to the potentially dangerous complications of flu - and the wider population.
We need to remember that influenza is a potentially life-threatening illness, and we must not let falling rates of vaccination become another hidden legacy of the pandemic. The widespread disruption in healthcare meant that many vaccination programmes for diseases other than COVID-19 lost momentum. This must be addressed, and we need to see a return to high rates of vaccination rates across the board.
Having your child vaccinated against flu will help family doctors to protect their patients most effectively and ensure that NHS services are available for those who need them most over the coming months.