Giving eight out of 10 children the seasonal flu vaccination could reduce the overall number of influenza infections by up to 95%, according to UK researchers.
Extending the current seasonal flu vaccination programme to include routine paediatric immunisation could prevent thousands of GP consultations, hospital admissions and patient deaths annually in the general population, they said.
The authors used a “dynamic transition model” to simulate the impact giving the vaccine to 80% of children aged two to 18 years would have on the population as a whole through “herd immunity”.
The study was carried out by researchers from Oxford and York universities and a private epidemiology company called Oxford Outcomes. It was sponsored by MedImmune, a company owned by pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca.
Writing in the journal Vaccine, the study authors said: “In England and Wales, paediatric vaccination of two to 18 year olds reduced the estimated number of general practice consultations, hospitalisations and deaths arising from influenza A and B infections by up to 95%. This translates into an annual average reduction of approximately 52,000, 1,500 and 1,200 events, respectively.”
Overall, vaccinating 80% of children would prevent 2.4 million flu infections per annum on average in the target age group, with indirect protection through “herd immunity” preventing a further 3.5 million infections in other age groups. Significant reductions were also predicted if only 50% of school age children were vaccinated, the authors said.
They added: “A policy of paediatric vaccination could significantly reduce the clinical burden of influenza in England and Wales, in all age groups, with the added value of herd immunity helping to protect the young and the elderly who are at highest risk of complications.”
Lead author Richard Pitman, from Oxford Outcomes, said: “As an age group, children play a key role in transmitting the virus due to frequent contact between both one another and between children and adults. Children are also more infectious than adults and shed the virus for a longer period of time.”
The government has so far held back from introducing a policy of routine vaccination for children – with the exception of children in “at risk” groups, such as those with long-term conditions. However, the policy has been implemented in other countries including the US.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which advises the UK government, said in November that more evidence was needed before the flu vaccination programme was extended to include children.
A review by the JCVI said an initial study by the Health Protection Agency suggested it may be cost-effective to vaccinate healthy children to reduce the spread of flu. However, is said further data was needed before the committee was “able to make a recommendation to government on vaccinating healthy children”.
During the 2010-11 flu season, there were over 15,000 critical bed days recorded due to suspected or confirmed flu.