Protecting children through flu vaccine

Photo of two-year-old Billie May in hospital.

A rising number of influenza (flu) cases presenting to the Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network (SCHN) ahead of winter has prompted renewed calls for parents to get their family vaccinated against the virus.

Between 1 January and 31 May this year, more than 800 children presented to The Children’s Hospital at Westmead (CHW) and Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick (SCH) with the flu. Of these presentations, 38 per cent were admitted to hospital for care.

It is recommended everyone aged six months and older receives the flu vaccine, which is safe and effective in preventing serious illness. Dr Phil Britton, Infectious Diseases Paediatrician at SCHN, said this is particularly important for high-risk groups such as children under five years of age.

“The flu can cause serious illness in children. While most cases are typically mild, some children experience complications such as severe chest infections, altered consciousness, seizures, and heart inflammation,” Dr Britton said.

Photo of Billy May in swimming pool whilst on holiday.

“Babies and immunocompromised children are particularly vulnerable to respiratory illnesses like flu, so now is the time to get the jab. If your baby is under six months of age and therefore too young to have the flu vaccine, the best way to protect them and reduce the risk of being admitted to hospital is by getting the whole family vaccinated.”

Two-year-old Billie May was on a flight home from an overseas holiday in January this year when she became non-responsive. She had been mildly sick in the days prior but became increasingly ill on the flight and was unable to be woken.

Billie May was helped by nurses on board the flight before being rushed to the Emergency Department at SCH when the flight landed in Sydney.

“My heart just sank. I’ve never been so worried, and I really thought something quite bad was going on,” Billie May’s mum Emily said.

Billie May tested positive for influenza. She had developed some small spots on her legs, and the flu was her only diagnosis. Thankfully, she perked up quickly and after an overnight stay in hospital was discharged the following day.

Billie May was one of the first children admitted to SCH with the flu this year, and Emily is encouraging other parents to book in their child’s vaccination appointment. She hopes Billie May’s case can be a warning to other parents about the potential severity of the flu in young children.

“Having seen how severely the flu hit her body, it’s definitely something to be taken seriously,” Emily said.

The trifecta of the flu, COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) can be easily spread throughout the community in winter, causing the number of serious cases of respiratory illnesses in children to rise.

Dr Nusrat Homaira, SCHN Respiratory Scientist said now is not the time to be complacent about winter illnesses and encourages everyone to take their symptoms seriously.

“A mild illness for an adult might be hospitalisation for a young child. Little things can make a big difference to help reduce the risk to themselves and others,” Dr Homaira said.

“These include practicing good hygiene by washing or sanitising hands often, staying home if unwell, covering nose and mouth when coughing, and wearing a mask in crowded, indoor places. This is especially important for conditions like RSV where there is no vaccine.”

Flu vaccines are readily available through doctors, pharmacists (for those aged five years and above), and Aboriginal Medical Services. Children aged six months to five years, those with serious health conditions, and Aboriginal people aged six months and above are eligible for a free flu shot.

If parents are worried and unsure what to do when their child is sick, they should contact their GP or use HealthDirect’s 24-hour hotline for practical health advice. In an emergency, call Triple Zero (000).

For more information on influenza in children, visit SCHN’s winter illness hub.