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Associate professor Margie Danchin, who works as a paediatrician at The Royal Children’s Hospital, in Melbourne, warned that vaccinating children is “critical” for the upcoming flu season in the UK – especially because there may be an increase in “flurona” (flu and Covid-19 co-infection).
“I recommend that all parents with children aged six months or older get a flu vaccine [for their children],” she tells HuffPost UK. “It’s so critical, especially if they’re travelling or they have any other risk factors such as underlying medical conditions. But especially children aged six months to five years.”
She suggests children under the age of two are particularly more vulnerable to flu because they’ve been exposed to fewer viruses during the pandemic.
Yet, in the UK, this group isn’t eligible for free flu vaccinations unless they have an underlying health condition.
“We saw that 25% of our hospitalised children were under two years old, but many more would have had flu and been cared for at home,” she says.
Health professionals in the UK have been urging anyone who’s eligible to get their flu vaccines as soon as possible, due to the possibility of a large early wave of the virus.
But the under-twos have been largely forgotten. When HuffPost UK asked the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) about this, a spokesperson said parents of under-twos can contact their GPs to get the best advice on vaccination.
In Australia, all children (not just those deemed ‘high risk’) aged six months to five years were eligible for a free flu vaccine and, during the month of June when flu was rife, all children under 18 were able to get a free vaccine.
“Due to Covid-19, children’s immunity to many viral infections, including flu, is lower,” says Danchin. “They have very little or no pre-existing immunity due to such low flu seasons in 2020 and 2021, and very low flu vaccine coverage over these two years.
“Children in this age group [under two years old] can get very sick and, of course, their parents need to stay home from work to care for them – and other family members can get sick too, such as elderly grandparents.”
In Australia, the flu season has been “moderate”, but there have been more children than usual admitted to hospital. Around half of hospitalised flu cases there have been in people under 19 years of age.
Somewhat unusually, says Danchin, older children aged five to 15 years old seemed to make up a higher proportion of hospitalisations from flu than usual, with nearly half (48%) of all cases being in that age group.
About a quarter of the children hospitalised were under two years old (25%), she adds.
Tragically there were two deaths: one child who had secondary pneumococcal pneumonia, and another who experienced respiratory arrest with an underlying neurological condition.
Most of the children admitted to hospital had issues such as dehydration or secondary bacterial infections.
“A small proportion have had neurological complications,” she adds, “but it hasn’t been unusual this year. We do know that 6% were admitted to ICU, about a third had underlying medical conditions, and the length of hospital stay was mostly shorter than in adults.”
While protection from the flu jab is by no means perfect – effectiveness is around 50% – it is still one of the best ways to protect against the virus. For Danchin, the vaccines could be the barrier that stops children from ending up in hospital with complications from flu.
“Flu is preventable and it is the most common vaccine preventable disease that children get admitted to hospital for, so we need to strongly message the importance of flu vaccine to parents,” she adds.
Lots of children will be receiving their vaccines at school, while toddlers and under-twos with health conditions will be called forward for vaccination at their GP surgeries.
If you have a child under two who doesn’t have an underlying health condition, but you’re worried about flu, it’s worth calling your GP to see if you can get them booked in for a vaccine.
The jab can’t be given to babies under six months of age, which is why it’s worth getting the vaccine in pregnancy.
Vaccines aside, frequent hand-washing, sneezing into tissues (or elbows) and staying home from school or childcare when sick are some other great ways to reduce the chance of spreading the virus this winter, the paediatrician adds.
People who are eligible for a free flu vaccine in the UK:
all children aged 2 or 3 years on August 31 2022
all primary school aged children (from reception to Year 6)
secondary school-aged children focusing on Years 7, 8 and 9 and any remaining vaccine will be offered to years 10 and 11, subject to vaccine availability
those aged 6 months to under 65 years in clinical risk groups
those aged 65 years and over
those in long-stay residential care homes
close contacts of immunocompromised individuals
those aged 50 to 64 years old not in clinical risk groups (including those who turn 50 by 31 March 2023)
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.