Deadly flu epidemic fear as immunisation of NI primary school children is delayed
Northern Ireland could be hit by a potentially deadly flu epidemic as schoolchildren here face delays to being vaccinated against the virus, it has been warned.
The annual vaccination programme for primary school pupils here has been affected by a UK-wide shortage of the nasal spray given to youngsters to protect them from flu.
It has emerged that primary school pupils as young as four years old were originally due to receive the vaccination this month, but the programme has been delayed until the middle of December.
It comes as a doctor has warned Northern Ireland could be hit by a flu season similar to the one that has just claimed more than 600 lives in Australia.
The Public Health Agency (PHA), the body which oversees the delivery of vaccination programmes in Northern Ireland, has said there has been a UK-wide delay in the supply of some of the Fluenz Tetra children's vaccine.
The organisation does not know how many children here have been affected by the stock shortage.
However, it said that children with underlying health conditions who were due to be vaccinated in the original school-based flu vaccination programme can get the vaccine at their GP surgery instead.
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A PHA spokesman said: "Some school vaccinations that were due to take place around the middle of November will need to be rescheduled as a result of the delay in supply.
"Children affected by this delay will still be offered the vaccine, and details of the rescheduled dates will be given to parents in due course.
"Parents of children with underlying conditions who were due to be vaccinated during this time can get them vaccinated through their GP surgery at an earlier stage than the rescheduled date offered by the school programme."
He continued: "We are working with our counterparts across the UK and the vaccine manufacturer, and as information is being updated daily, it is not possible to put a figure on the number of children whose vaccination will be delayed.
"However, everyone who is eligible should still be able to receive the flu vaccine in due course."
He said that vaccination for at-risk adults, which includes people with an underlying health condition and pregnant women, healthcare workers and over 65s, are unaffected by the shortage.
"We would encourage all adults who are eligible to receive the flu vaccine to get it," he said.
"This will not only protect them, but will also help to reduce the impact of flu in the wider community."
Dr Michael McKenna, a GP based in west Belfast, said doctors will work hard to ensure patients are vaccinated as soon as possible.
He said that, if necessary, younger patients can receive the flu vaccination by injection as opposed to the nasal spray, which will offer the required protection from the virus.
"It's difficult to predict exactly what is going to happen but we are concerned that we will have a similar difficult flu season to Australia, that's what is currently being anticipated," he said.
"GPs will work as hard as is needed to make sure that everyone who is eligible for the vaccination gets it.
"Croup and bronchiolitis seem to be hitting hard at the moment, which is a little bit early, but it means that the children's casualty has been working hard.
"They are a service that just seem to quietly get on with it, although it does put pressure on intensive care beds."
Ordinarily, the flu vaccines arrive with GPs and health trusts in mid-September, with vaccination clinics beginning in the first week of October, with the majority of clinics carried out by December.
Australia has just experienced one of its worst flu seasons in recent years. The flu season in Australia usually spans from June to September and peaks in August. However, it started early this year. It produced a record number of influenza cases in summer and autumn, with 272,146 laboratory confirmed cases reported by the end of the first week of September.
Last year GP practices were forced to delay flu jab clinics for patients over the age of 65 due to a shortage of the vaccination.
It came after health chiefs admitted to some "logistical issues" in the roll-out of a new vaccine UK-wide for over-65s.