Parents are being urged to protect their children against flu this winter following a surge in serious cases among under-fives.
Figures suggest flu hospitalisations in young children are nearly 20 times as high as last year, with this week showing 230 under-fives hospitalised compared to just 12 at the same time last year.
Estimates also show hundreds more under-fives have been admitted to hospital with flu over the past six weeks.
Vaccine uptake in children aged two to three is also behind last year’s figures – despite being invited by NHS England, just under 35% of children (34.1% of two-year-olds, 35.8% of three-year-olds) have received their flu jab so far this year – down 9% on last year.
The NHS is writing to over 800,000 parents to encourage them to take their children to get the vaccine, usually a nose spray, at a GP practice ahead of Christmas.
In total, just under four million invites and reminders have been sent since this year’s vaccine programme began.
NHS National Director of Vaccinations and Screening Steve Russell said: “With almost 18 million jabs already administered, our flu vaccination programme continues to make great strides in protecting the public, but it is vital we make sure no group falls behind.
“Young children, whose health can of course be affected by illness, can also pass on flu to other vulnerable family members, so we encourage parents to think about getting their flu vaccination at thousands of available sites ahead of the Christmas period.”
Children born between 1 September 2018 and 31 August 2020 and all pregnant women can receive a free NHS flu vaccination, with under-5s given a nasal spray unless not medically appropriate.
Professor Sir Stephen Powis, NHS National Medical Director, said: “It is very encouraging to see good flu vaccination uptake already but as we go through winter and we spend more time indoors, respiratory diseases become more prevalent so it is vital we do whatever we can to protect ourselves and others.
“Flu when you are pregnant can cause complications and evidence suggests it could cause your baby to be born prematurely. Young children can also be at risk, especially if they have long-term health conditions, and we have seen an increase in hospitalisations in recent weeks.
“So our message to pregnant women and parents of young children alike is it’s not too late to come forward for this vital protection.”
Health Minister Maria Caulfield said: “Our flu vaccination programme this year is making great progress, with more than 17million vaccines administered so far.
“However, it is vital that all those eligible continue to come forward for their free vaccination and that parents are aware that 2-3 year-olds are also eligible, which is usually delivered via nasal spray, and appointments can be made via your GP.
“Flu cases are continuing to rise and the vaccine is our best defence to keep us safe this winter, so please do not hesitate to make a booking as soon as possible.”
The flu vaccine can protect young children from getting seriously ill and ending up in hospital. For most children, it is a quick and painless spray up the nose which is administered in a GP surgery. More information can be found on the NHS website.
One mother, Rosie, took her two-year-old to get his flu vaccine to protect not only her child but her household from the illness.
Rosie explained: “Toddlers bring all sorts of bugs home and flu can be a particularly nasty one, so I was keen Seth was vaccinated. It was easy to arrange the appointment, the procedure was a quick nasal spray which he didn’t mind one bit.
“We were out of the door in a few minutes – one protected toddler and one happy Mum!”
Pregnant women also have lower uptake of the flu vaccine with 29.6% having had the vaccine this year and 34.4% had the flu vaccine last year. They are also being encouraged to come forward for the vaccine.
For many others, including pregnant women, you can book an appointment online and in many areas there are walk-in sites.
It comes as the latest winter data shows hundreds of NHS beds are being taken up by flu patients every day, more than ten times the number seen at the beginning of December last year.
The latest weekly winter update also show a 40% jump in the number of patients in hospital with flu compared to the previous week, with an average of 482 flu cases in hospital each day last week, up from 344.
Across the population, the intensive care admission rate is now higher for flu than for COVID-19 and UKHSA recently recommended that the increasing level of flu circulating meant that it was appropriate for antivirals to be prescribed in primary care settings for flu.
Senior policy adviser at NCT, Elizabeth Duff, said: “Vaccination is a simple and effective way to protect you, your child and loved ones against serious but avoidable consequences resulting from the flu virus.
“Flu caught during pregnancy can be harmful, not only to pregnant women but also to their unborn baby. You can have the vaccination at any time during pregnancy.
“We would urge expectant mothers or parents with young children to discuss any questions they may have with their doctor, nurse or midwife.”
Young children who can get a flu vaccination include:
- children aged 2 or 3 years on 31 August 2022 (born between 1 September 2018 and 31 August 2020)
- all primary school children (Reception to Year 6)
- some secondary school aged children
- children aged 2 to 17 years with long-term health conditions
The nasal spray vaccine offers the best protection for children aged 2 to 17 years. They will be offered a flu vaccine injection if the nasal spray vaccine is not suitable for them.