The nasal flu vaccine will be delayed for some children this winter, Public Health England (PHE) has said.
A quarter of batches from supplier AstraZeneca, which were due to arrive in November, have been delayed due to needing to repeat some routine tests.
It is understood the delay will be for several weeks, meaning some schools will need to reschedule vaccination sessions planned for mid-November.
In the meantime, GPs have been advised to prioritise all those under 18 years of age who are in at-risk groups, followed by younger children aged two and three, to ensure that the most vulnerable children are protected first.
Flu cases tend to peak in December, so people are urged to get vaccinated before then.
The news comes after PHE revealed earlier this year that all primary school children would be offered the free flu vaccine for the first time ever. Previously, only children in Years 5 and below were given the vaccine. This year, an extra 600,000 children are supposed to benefit from it.
So what do parents need to know about the vaccine?
What is flu?
Flu is not the same as a cold – the symptoms are often worse and tend to come on very quickly. Symptoms can include a high temperature, fatigue, a dry, chesty cough, headaches, chills, aching muscles, and limb or joint pain.
Other signs include diarrhoea or abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, a sore throat, a runny or blocked nose, sneezing, a loss of appetite and difficulty sleeping. Children might also develop a pain in their ear and appear less active.
Why are kids given the vaccine?
Professor Yvonne Doyle, medical director for PHE, said vaccinating children against flu protects the rest of society, too.
“Children are ‘super spreaders’ of flu,” she said. “Flu vaccination not only protects the children but it also protects other, more vulnerable members of the community from a potentially horrible illness.”
For people with existing medical conditions like asthma or heart disease, flu can progress into more serious illnesses such as bronchitis and pneumonia, or even worsen their existing conditions.
In some cases it can result in death – last season, there were an estimated 1,692 deaths in the UK linked to flu.
How are kids given the vaccine?
This year’s vaccine will be given to children in the form of a nasal spray, rather than a needle (unless they have a medical condition that means they should receive the injectable version). It aims to protect against four strains of flu.
Side effects of the nasal vaccine can include a runny or blocked nose, headache, tiredness and some loss of appetite.
In total, around 4.7 million school age children in England will be offered the vaccine. “It’s the best defence we have against an unpredictable virus,” said Prof Doyle.
How effective is it?
Last year’s nasal spray flu vaccine was 48.6% effective among children aged two to 17 years old, PHE said. The 2018 vaccine was more effective than the 2017 vaccine, data shows.
It is hard to improve effectiveness as, every year, scientists have to guess which strains will be most prevalent. This year, they estimate that the following strains will circulate, based on surveillance of flu seasons in the southern hemisphere:
A/Brisbane/02/2018 (H1N1) virus strain,
A/Kansas/14/2017 (H3N2) virus strain,
B/Colorado/06/2017 virus strain (B/Victoria/2/87 lineage),
B/Phuket/3073/2013 virus strain (B/Yamagata/16/88 lineage).
When will the vaccine be issued?
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said at a media briefing earlier this year that children would receive their flu vaccine throughout the autumn school term up until the end of November. However the most recent announcement on vaccine delays means that some schools will need to reschedule.
Clinics will be rescheduled as soon as possible and children in high risk groups are advised to visit their GP if their school session is delayed, to ensure that they are protected early, PHE said.
The children’s programme has been underway since October, and the majority of this year’s flu vaccine has already been released.
What to do if your child has flu
If your child develops flu, they should stay home and rest. Don’t send them to school as they will pass the virus around.
Make sure your child wraps up warm and drinks plenty of water to avoid dehydration. Speak to a pharmacist who can recommend appropriate treatments to relieve symptoms.
Hygiene is an important way to prevent the spread of flu, so encourage your child to sneeze and cough into tissues, which should then be binned.
They should be encouraged to wash their hands regularly too, to keep the virus as contained as possible.