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Vaccinate all children says mother of girl killed by swine flu

Fergus Walsh | 21:25 UK time, Wednesday, 12 January 2011

The heart-rending story of three-year-old Lana Ameen has once again raised the issue of whether flu jabs should be available for healthy under-fives.

She fell ill with swine flu on Christmas Eve and died of multiple organ failure in Alder Hey Hospital, Liverpool, on Boxing Day. She had no previous health issues.

Her parents, a doctor and a nurse, released photos of her in intensive care, just hours before her death, in a bid to persuade ministers to change the policy on vaccination to allow all children to be immunised.

Her mother Gemma, who is 12 weeks pregnant, said: "I don't know how they can say my child wasn't worth having a few pounds worth of vaccine which could have saved her life. Not everybody who is healthy has been able to fight it off."

It is certainly true that some healthy people have died from flu this winter. About one in three deaths since October have been among those who did not fall into the official at-risk groups.

There is a danger that tragic and rare cases like that of Lana Ameen could create a fear factor among parents - greatly exaggerating the risks from swine flu which has already infected millions of children. The vast majority who have been infected recover completely. But Lana's parents say her death shows that all children should be protected.

It would take several weeks to gear up GPs to offer the jab to healthy children and then about two weeks for the vaccine to take effect. So it is too late for a change of policy on immunisation this winter.

There is an apparent contradiction in government policy on flu immunisation. Last year, all children between six months and five years were offered the pandemic H1N1 swine flu jab - more than three million children.

This year swine flu remains the dominant strain and has caused nine out of 10 deaths, yet healthy children are not being offered the vaccine. But to be fair the government is following the advice of experts (opens pdf) on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).

So any contradiction - if there is one at all - is not with ministers, but with the committee that recommends policy on immunisation. The JCVI's advice is in contrast to that from the US where the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), has recommended (opens pdf) that people of all ages, healthy and otherwise, should be immunised.

We interviewed the head of Immunisation at the Department of Health, Professor David Salisbury, and he stressed that the JCVI was constantly reviewing the data on flu risks.

He said: "The first thing we must use our health resources for is to get at the people where the greatest gain will come, and the greatest gain will come from people with risk factors. If we suddenly said, without evidence, we should include all children under 18, that is up to 12 million people. It would divert doctors and nurses from saving lives. In 2011 we will be reviewing all our vaccine policy for influenza and we will look very carefully at the issue of age groups, risk factors and so on."

It is clear the issue of who gets offered the jab will be reconsidered in future, as it is each year. If the policy does change then GPs will need to be told quickly, as they will be putting their orders in soon for next winter's flu jabs.

There is also the question about how many parents would take up the offer of a jab. Just 23% of healthy children under five were immunised last year.

We don't know for sure whether having the H1N1 jab last year guarantees protection from the virus this winter - those studies are being done.

Just one in two of those under 65 who are in at-risk groups and so are most vulnerable to flu get protected each year. If immunisation is extended, then how many parents would get their healthy children protected year after year?

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