Andrew Lansley, the UK’s Health Secretary, has accepted UK immunization experts’ recommendations to extend the flu vaccination program to vaccinate all children.

The UK Government’s vaccination programs have already gained worldwide recognition as the most comprehensive programs. However, the government’s new plans extend even further. The UK is set to become the first country in the world to provide all children free of charge with a comprehensive flu vaccination program.

Children belonging to risk groups, including children with asthma, heart conditions or cerebral palsy, are already eligible to be vaccinated against flu under the NHS. Once the program starts, the vaccine will be available to all children between the ages of 2 to around 17 years on the NHS.

The Government passed the decision after the Health Secretary asked the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization (JCVI) to examine the evidence for extending the program. The JCVI is the Government’s advisory body of independent experts, who came to the conclusion that the health benefits of a comprehensive immunization program outweigh the program’s considerable challenges.

The next step will be to examine various key aspects, since the biggest challenge will be sourcing sufficient new vaccine. Currently there is only one manufacturer, who does not have the capacity to supply sufficient amounts of the new vaccine until 2014 at the very earliest.

Once the program is up and running, it will cost the government over £100 million annually, and it will provide cover against flu to up to nine million children. Children will be vaccinated during a six to eight week period due to the nature of the flu season.

A moderate uptake in vaccinations would result in a reduction of around 40% in those affected, which would translate to at least 11,000 fewer hospitalizations in addition to saving around 2,000 lives. The benefits could be even greater if the government achieves its ambitious plans to roll out the vaccination program. Although vaccinated children will benefit from the extra protection, those who will enjoy the biggest benefits will be very young infants, older people and those in risk groups.

Before the program can commence, the following issues need to be examined:

  • Who will give the vaccinations?
  • Should they be given by school nurses or other qualified people and how will they be trained?
  • What is the best way to deliver the program in the 6 to 8-week period preceding the flu season?
  • What is the best way of communicating the reason for vaccinating to the parents to reassure them?

Whilst these questions are being decided, the priority remains to raise vaccinations in groups at-risk, including people of 65 years and older, diabetics, asthmatics, people with neurological conditions and pregnant women.

According to Chief Medical Officer Professor Dame Sally Davies:

“Severe winter flu and its complications can make people really ill and can kill, particularly those who are weak and frail which is why we already offer vaccinations to the most at-risk groups. We accept the advice of our expert committee that rolling out a wider program could further protect children. With even a modest take-up helping to protect our most vulnerable. There are significant challenges to delivering a program that requires up to nine million children to be vaccinated during a six week period and we will look at the recommendations in detail to decide how best to develop and deliver the program.”

The program will use a nasal spray vaccine with an excellent safety profile that has been available in the U.S. for approximately 10 years. Even though last year flu levels were low and healthy children are least likely to suffer complications if they acquire the flu, the fact that children have close contact with each other means that they represent a high risk in transmitting the virus on to other, more vulnerable people, such as babies and the elderly.

Written by Grace Rattue