Belfast Telegraph

Doctor urges calm as two children die of swine flu in Northern ireland

By Lisa Smyth

Northern Ireland’s top doctor has urged calm following the death of two children from swine flu in Northern Ireland in recent days.

Public concern has grown after the deaths of the youngsters — bringing to 19 the number of people who have died here from the H1N1 virus since November.

Health officials have revealed two of the people who have died did not have pre-existing medical conditions, prompting calls for the seasonal flu vaccine — which protects against three strains of flu including swine flu — to be made more widely available, particularly for young children.

In the latest confirmed cases, a 10-month-old baby boy from Northern Ireland, who had underlying health conditions, died in intensive care from swine flu.

News of the death came just hours after the Public Health Agency confirmed that a two-year-old boy from the Republic of Ireland died from swine flu while being treated at a hospital in Northern Ireland.

It is not known whether the child had any other medical conditions prior to contracting the virus.

Responding to the latest deaths Dr Michael McBride, the province’s Chief Medical Officer, said: “Every death is a tragedy, particularly that of a child. I wish to extend my sincere sympathies to the family of this child.

“The important message is that anyone in an at-risk group who has not yet been vaccinated should do so as soon as possible.

“We continue to offer vaccinations to any child under five in an at-risk group as advised by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).

“The question has been posed if we should extend to healthy under-fives. I know the JCVI is keeping this under close and active review and we will continue to be guided by their expert advice.

“I also want to assure the public we have a safe and effective vaccine available in Northern Ireland to provide protection against swine flu. GP practices should continue to order the vaccines they require through the normal channels.”

The JCVI is an independent expert advisory committee that advises the UK health ministers on matters relating to the provision of vaccination and immunisation services.

Currently, it advises that only people over 65, those with underlying health conditions and pregnant woman should be vaccinated against swine flu.

It released its latest advice last month in which it said it has considered the possibility of immunising children up to 15 years old.

It said: “However, although there is a high incidence of influenza-like illness currently in these age groups, a significant proportion of this is due to other viruses such as Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV).

“In addition, only a very small proportion of those with severe disease are in these age groups.

“We do not believe that seasonal or pandemic vaccine should be used for these or other healthy person groups.

“The greatest gain will be achieved in increasing vaccine uptake in the clinical risk groups.”

Last week, officials from the PHA and Health & Social Care Board told the Stormont health committee that research has found many children under the age of five have developed resistance to the H1N1 virus, which offers them protection against the potentially deadly condition.

Committee chairman Jim Wells said he will be keeping a close eye on developments.

“The number of young children with swine flu is much lower this winter than during the same period last year,” said Mr Wells.

“All of the information would indicate that mass vaccination is not the best way forward.

“The PHA will, however, be keeping the situation under constant review.”

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