Influenza vaccinations down as Wales flu season begins

Kalsoom Khairuddin with her mother Khaireen Image copyright ABMU Health Board
Image caption Kalsoom Khairuddin with her mother Khaireen

Flu vaccination numbers are down in Wales, with health experts warning influenza is beginning to circulate.

Almost 1,000 people have been affected by influenza this flu season so far.

But the percentage of those eligible for taking up the offer of a free vaccination is down compared with last winter.

It comes as a report found fear of a vaccine's side effects, fuelled by myths on social media, is the top reason for people refusing them.

So far this winter, 66.9% of those aged 65 and older have been vaccinated against flu, which can cause potentially serious complications including pneumonia in at-risk groups.

The same time last year, the number was 67.9% and rose to 68.8% (451,346 people) by the end of the 2017-18 flu season, Public Health Wales (PHW) figures showed.

Just over 46% of children aged two and three have received the vaccine this winter, usually given to this age group as a pain-free nasal spray. This time last year the figure was 48.7%, rising to 50.2% by the end of winter.

'Breathing difficulties'

Some young children can suffer complications with flu, including pneumonia, and they may end up in hospital.

Two-year-old Kalsoom Khairuddin was rushed to Morriston Hospital in Swansea by her parents, struggling to breathe.

"Everything went well until winter came and she got a cough and we got so alarmed when she suffered breathing difficulties," her mother Khaireen Khairuddin said.

"We called an ambulance and waited for 10 minutes, but then decided we should just rush her off ourselves to Morriston Hospital."

Doctors told Mrs Khairuddin that her daughter's small airway tubes had swollen, restricting her breathing. They gave her steroids to reduce the inflammation.

Image copyright ABMU Health Board
Image caption Kalsoom Khairuddin getting the flu spray

"She could have stopped breathing," she said.

"It was a really frightening episode, so when the surgery called us to say bring her in for vaccination I brought her in because I don't want her to have another episode.

"I am not taking any risks... You wouldn't want to go through what I went through, no parents would want that."

Meanwhile 69.9% of children aged four to 10 have been vaccinated at 1,295 primary schools, compared with 68% of four to eight-year-olds last year (as the free vaccine is now available to a wider age group), along with almost 42% of those younger than 65 in a clinical risk group - again down from last year.

Last winter more than 820,000 in total were vaccinated - 25% of the population of Wales.

Image copyright Hywel Dda UHB
Image caption Dr Jo McCarthy with her daughter Niamh

This year flu is already circulating at "medium" levels in Wales, with 966 confirmed cases this winter so far.

Dr Jo McCarthy, consultant in public health microbiology at Hywel Dda, said she was one of the 100,000 people the health board has already vaccinated.

"I know from studying the evidence that vaccination works, and is the only effective way to prevent the spread of the flu virus.

"Not only is my vaccination protecting me, it is protecting those around me too - my family, friends, neighbours and patients."

Public Health Wales (PHW) has been working to debunk some of the common myths - including that the vaccine can give people flu.

Health visitor Rosi Jones, who works in the Abertawe Bro Morgannwg area, said: "It will not give your child flu, but some children may experience mild side effects, including a runny nose."

A PHW spokesman added: "If your child gets a cold shortly after having had the flu vaccine, it is usually nothing more than an unfortunate coincidence and has not been caused by the vaccine itself.

"The big difference is that flu can kill - it kills people every year, including normally fit and healthy people. Unfortunately, lots of people use the terms 'cold' and 'flu' interchangeably and you might well see medicine in your pharmacy that calls itself 'cold and flu' medication - but this is incorrect.

"Every year children in Wales need treatment in intensive care units because of flu."

Another popular myth on social media is that the vaccine is developed to only protect against the previous year's flu strain.

"Flu is unpredictable," the spokesman said. "Every year experts at the World Health Organisation work hard to predict what the next strain of flu circulating here will be.

"Because vaccines have to be manufactured far in advance, it is true that experts cannot know for sure what the next flu strain circulating will be, but they use past data and experience to predict it."

Across the UK, one in five parents chose not to give the flu vaccination to their child, expressing worries over unwanted side effects.

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