'Young children can spread the flu virus very quickly, making them super-spreaders'
As the Public Health Agency appeals to parents to ensure their toddlers are vaccinated against flu, Belfast mother Sorcha McKeown reveals what the experience was like for her son Thomas (3)
Three-year-old Thomas McKeown is well prepared for the winter season, having received the flu nasal spray at his GP's surgery.
Thomas is one of the thousands of pre-schoolers aged between two and four who are eligible to receive the free flu vaccine in the form of a nasal spray. The vaccine provides children with the best line of defence against the illness and Thomas's mum, Sorcha, was keen that he had maximum protection against the flu this winter.
"My older son, James, will receive his vaccine at school," said Sorcha, who lives in Belfast. "I was keen that Thomas also received the vaccination to help keep him well this winter.
"The vaccination took very little time and, because it is a nasal spray, it was painless - he even remarked that it tickled."
Last year, seasonal flu activity was the highest seen since the 2009 pandemic, with 119 cases of flu in intensive care/high dependency units (ICU/HDU) - more than twice as many as the previous year - and a total of 22 deaths in ICU/HDU in which a diagnosis of influenza was confirmed.
Uptake of the childhood vaccine was down slightly last year. Flu vaccination plays a vital role in limiting the impact of flu, not only on those who receive the vaccine, but by also helping to reduce the spread of the virus among families and in communities.
The flu virus spreads easily and quickly, infecting both adults and children alike.
This can lead to days spent in bed rather than being at work or school, causing considerable inconvenience for the whole family, not to mention putting more vulnerable relatives at risk.
Evidence shows that the flu vaccine can provide direct protection to children and will also reduce the amount of flu circulating, thus providing indirect protection for older people and individuals with underlying health conditions.
Helping to protect the wider circle of friends and family was also a factor in Sorcha's decision to have her boys vaccinated.
"With Thomas in pre-school and James in primary school, and both of them spending a lot of time with their grandparents, I wanted to do what I could to look after not only the boys but also those around them," she added.
Flu can cause the same unpleasant symptoms in children as it does with adults - fever, chills, aching muscles and joints, headache and extreme tiredness. Symptoms can last between two and seven days and for some it can lead to serious illness and hospital admission.
Complications arising from flu can include bronchitis, pneumonia and painful middle ear infection. In severe cases, which are very rare, flu can lead to disability and even death. Younger children are more at risk and more likely to end up in hospital.
The Public Health Agency (PHA) is urging parents to get the free flu vaccine for their children to provide them with the best line of defence against the illness.
"The flu virus spreads through the air when people cough and sneeze without covering their nose and mouth," said Dr Lucy Jessop, Health Protection Consultant with the PHA.
"Young children don't always cover their noses or mouths when coughing or sneezing and they can spread the flu virus very quickly, making them 'super-spreaders'."
Pre-school children in Northern Ireland aged two years and over are eligible to receive the free flu vaccine through their GP. Children in primaries one to seven will be offered the vaccine in school. In addition, people over 65, 'at risk' children and adults, and pregnant women can receive the flu jab at their doctor's surgery.
Most children receive the vaccine via a quick and painless nasal spray. The nasal vaccine has been shown to provide even greater protection for children than the flu injection. There are a few children who cannot receive the nasal spray and they will be offered the injection instead.
Dr Jessop added: "Traditionally uptake rates for flu vaccination are high in Northern Ireland. However, last year we saw a slight drop. We mustn't become complacent - we need to maintain high rates of uptake every year to maximise protection for our community."
Some GPs may not directly invite all of their registered patients who are eligible for vaccination. If you, or someone in your care, are eligible to be vaccinated but do not receive an invitation, contact your GP to find out more about their flu vaccination clinics.
The vaccine changes each year to cover the strains which are likely to be prevalent over the course of the flu season, so it is important to get immunised annually.
As it takes approximately two weeks following vaccination to develop maximum protection against flu, it is important to get vaccinated by early December. If you wait until flu starts circulating, it may be too late for the vaccine to protect you, so get the flu vaccine and stay well this winter.
The flu vaccination programme is part of the wider Stay Well this Winter programme operated by the Public Health Agency and the Health and Social Care Board which enables people to take simple steps during the colder months to look after their health.
For further information on the flu vaccine see www.pha.site/fluleaflets. For information on how to help yourself stay well this winter visit www.nidirect.gov.uk/stay-well