Thousands of primary school children in the North East will be offered the flu vaccine for the first time as part of a new pilot scheme this winter.
Gateshead is one of seven areas across the country where healthy children will receive the nasal spray flu vaccine over the coming months, and it is expected that as many as 10,000 youngsters will get the jab.
More than 60 primary schools in Gateshead are taking part in the pilot scheme, the aim of which is to test different delivery models ahead of the planned rollout of the national flu vaccination programme to include all two to 16-year-olds in the future.
Dr Tricia Cresswell, consultant in health protection for Public Health England, said: “Flu is not just a cold – it can be a really serious illness for some people and it doesn’t just affect older people. Healthy children are still susceptible to flu and its associated complications, such as pneumonia.
“Flu is highly contagious and children can also pass on the virus to those who are at risk of becoming more seriously ill from flu, such as pregnant women, over 65s and those with a long-term health condition.
“We encourage any parent in Gateshead whose child is invited for vaccination at their school to accept the offer and protect their child this winter.”
The vaccine will not only protect healthy children from flu, but will also help to reduce the spread of the virus and protect many others, such as younger siblings, grandparents and those who are at an increased risk of becoming seriously ill.
Parents and guardians of children aged four to 10 at the participating primary schools will receive a letter and a consent form which they will need to complete and return.
Children will then receive the Fluenz nasal spray vaccine from their school nurse.
Fluenz has been widely used in children and adolescents in America for more than 10 years.
Carole Wood, director of public health for Gateshead, said: “Immunisation is one of the most important ways to protect the public from serious diseases.
“Flu is the cause of thousands of lost work and school days so immunisation protects both health and the local economy. We hope that offering the vaccine through schools proves to be one of the least disruptive and effective ways of vaccinating school aged children.”
Flu is an infectious and common viral illness spread by coughs and sneezes and can prove fatal in vulnerable adults and children.
Bev Atkinson is executive director, nursing and patient safety, for South Tyneside NHS Foundation Trust, whose school nurses will give the children the vaccine.
She said: “We are pleased to be involved in this pilot, which will not only protect those children who receive the vaccine but will also help to protect against the spread of flu.
“Young children’s close contact with each other means they are more likely to transmit the virus to one another and to vulnerable people in their families, including infants and grandparents, who are more likely to end up in hospital with complications after contracting flu.
“The immunisation is safe, quick and painless and the vaccine offers excellent protection against those types of flu virus that are most likely to be circulating this winter.”
In addition to the pilots, the annual seasonal flu programme is continuing as usual. Children who are in a clinical at risk group are already offered vaccination as part of this programme so are not included in the scheme.
Meanwhile, it has been revealed that British scientists have edged closer to developing a “holy grail” universal influenza vaccine that would tackle all strains of the illness.
Researchers at Imperial College London (ICL) have drawn on the results of a study into the 2009 swine flu pandemic, which found those with more virus-killing immune cells in their blood at the start of the pandemic avoided severe illness.
They believe a vaccine that stimulates the body to produce more of these cells - known as CD8 Ts - could be effective at preventing flu viruses, including new strains that cross into humans from birds and pigs, from causing serious disease.
Prof Ajit Lalvani, who led the study, said: “New strains of flu are continuously emerging, some of which are deadly, and so the holy grail is to create a universal vaccine that would be effective against all strains of flu.”
Influenza kills between 250,000 and 500,000 globally per year, according to the World Health Organisation.
The ICL announcement comes after scientists in America said they thought they might have developed “universal” protection against the killer virus.