Free flu shot for all NSW kids under five after horror flu season

Alistair Massay was hospitalised for three days at Westmead Children's Hospital with flu in September 2017.  Picture: Supplied
Alistair Massay was hospitalised for three days at Westmead Children's Hospital with flu in September 2017. Picture: Supplied

Free flu vaccinations will now be available for all NSW children between six months and five years old, after a horror season killed two preschoolers in 2017. 

The NSW government will invest $3.5 million in 2018 for the children's flu vaccines, Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced on Tuesday.

The program will target more than 400,000 children across the state.

"We know what the tragic consequences can be when flu hits young children," Ms Berejiklian said.

"We wanted to make sure we are doing everything we can to prevent young children from falling susceptible to the flu."

Young children are particularly vulnerable to the virus, and more prone than healthy adults to developing severe symptoms and secondary conditions which can be fatal 

Two children under five died with influenza in NSW in 2017 and 250 were hospitalised with severe flu at Westmead Childrens Hospital, double the rate of 2016.

There were more than 12,000 confirmed cases of influenza among children under five in 2017. This number is likely to be an underestimation, with countless unconfirmed cases.

"Free flu vaccinations for kids between six months of age and five years is a good deal. Please take it up," Ms Berejiklian urged parents and carers.

"It protects your own children and also the community and ensures [fewer] people fall victim to what was a terrible flu season last year, and we want to prevent that form happening again this year."

The annual flu vaccine is recommended for children aged six months and over, but is not included or subsidised in the national immunisation program.

The vaccines would usually cost $25 each, $50 for the two recommended doses in children under five.

West Australia has offered a free annual flu vaccine for all children under five years old since 2008 but fewer than 10 per cent were immunised last year. QLD also subsidised children's vaccines.

Health Minister Brad Hazzard said he did not expect all eligible families would take up the vaccine, but uptake would be better in NSW, following the state's brutal 2017 flu season.

"Flu, sadly, can kill," Mr Hazzard said.

"Our government is not prepared to wait for any other government's ... federal government's assistance," he said of the state-funded scheme. 

Referring to reports of anti-vaccination proponents setting up childcare services for unvaccinated children in northern NSW, Mr Hazzard said it was "extremely irresponsible", "self-indulgence and arrogance".

Infants and young children were the most likely group to spread the flu and suffer complications, Mr Hazzard said. 

"Not only will this free flu jab help keep them safe during winter, but it will also protect their family and friends."

Gillian Massey's one-year-old son Alistair spent three days in Westmead Children's Hospital with a severe bout of influenza A in September. 

"It came on so quickly. He started vomiting and was very lethargic and not interacting with people around him," Mrs Massey said.

"When he didn't react to the pain of a blood test, that's when we knew something was seriously wrong.

"When the hospital physicians became quite concerned, that's when I started to panic ... it was the scariest time of my life," she said.

Alistair - now 16 months - was given IV fluids and the antiviral Tamiflu.

Mrs Massey said parents may skim over the recommendation for a flu vaccine in young children because it's not on the subsidised schedule.

"This year and every year, especially after this [announcement], I will definitely get Alistair vaccinated for the flu," she said.

Mrs Massey, a paediatric nurse, said she was completely caught by surprise.

"I think we often feel like this won't happen to us. We make sure our kids are healthy ... but no one's invincible," she said.

Australian Medical Association NSW president Professor Brad Frankum said any moves to increase rates of immunisation among vulnerable groups was a smart move by the government.

"Children and the elderly are more likely to suffer serious harm from the flu and it's important that they get the best protection available.

"The State Government is doing its bit to close a gap for children under five," Professor Frankum said.

Australians eligible for free vaccines under the National Immunisation Program:

  • People aged 65 years and over
  • Pregnant women
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait people aged six months to five years, and 15 years and older
  • People aged six months and over with medical conditions including asthma, lung or heart disease, low immunity or diabetes 

This story was first published by the Sydney Morning Herald.

This story Free flu shot for all NSW kids under five after horror flu season first appeared on Illawarra Mercury.