Less than a fifth of two- to four-year-olds, who are eligible for the nasal vaccine free on the NHS, have received the vaccine so far this season, CMO Professor Dame Sally Davies has warned.
Public Health England (PHE) figures show that just 17% of two-year-olds, 18% of three-year-olds and 14% of four-year-olds received the vaccine by the end of October.
Four-year-olds were not eligible for vaccination on the NHS last year, but the uptake rate at this stage last year was 22% for two-year-olds and 20% for three-year-olds.
The dip in uptake could spell a ‘miserable winter’ for families, and an increased burden on medical services as the virus runs unchecked, Dame Sally warned.
'Superspreaders' pose flu risk
Toddlers – so-called ‘superspreaders’ – are more likely to spread flu because they tend to have greater contact with others and are less likely to cover their mouths when coughing.
Analysis has shown that vaccinating half of all children aged six months to four years would prevent almost half a million cases of flu.
Dame Sally said part of the problem is that many parents are unaware that the vaccine is available - or that it needs to be readministered every year.
She said: ‘Flu can be really nasty for toddlers, leading to time off nursery which has a big impact on mums and dads and sometimes even a stay in hospital. They also spread the virus easily and often pass flu to grandparents and other relatives who can become very ill, fast.
‘Giving two, three and four year olds the free nasal spray really is in everyone’s interests if you want to help avoid a miserable winter for all the family.’
RCGP’s immunisation lead Dr George Kassianos said the college was ‘concerned’ that uptake had fallen.
He said: ‘This is a convenient, easy to give and extremely effective vaccine that is available free to children aged two, three, and four years as well as children age below 18 in any of the at-risk groups. It is essential that we increase public awareness so that we can better control the spread of the flu virus, save complications and admissions to hospitals and even save lives.’
The nasal spray vaccine was made freely available on the NHS for two- to three-year-olds last year, with this being bumped up to include four-year-olds this season. The DH aims to gradually roll this out to all children aged two to 16 over coming years.
Last year, 904 people were admitted to intensive care for severe cases of flu. A confirmed 98 deaths were due to the disease, although estimates suggest it contributed to many more unrecognised and unreported cases.