Speaking at the ESWI Flu Summit in Brussels, Dr Maria Tsolia said influenza is responsible for the deaths of dozens of healthy children every year and can also cause serious complications.
In addition, flu outbreaks lead to an upsurge in outpatient visits, excess use of antibiotics, school absence and parental workdays lost, as well as transmission of influenza to family members.
Dr Tsolia, who works at the Department of Paediatrics at the University of Athens in Greece, said the currently available vaccines “are safe and provide substantial protection to children”.
She recommended that immunising young children (aged between three and five years) would be a good first step to expanding vaccine uptake in this group.
‘Think of the grandparents’
This was echoed by Prof Peter Openshaw of Imperial College London who said the perception among experts in the UK is that children may be key to spreading the disease in their communities.
He said health authorities are now discussing vaccination of school children in an effort to boost herd immunity.
Dr Litjen Tan, co-chair of National Influenza Vaccine Summit and Director of Medicine and Public Health at the American Medical Association, said the US has introduced a policy of universal vaccination against influenza which means all children aged six months or older are encouraged to have the vaccine every year.
He noted that when Japanese health authorities stopped vaccinating children against flu for financial reasons they saw an increase in influenza-like illnesses among grandparents.
Dr Caroline Brown of the WHO Regional Office for Europe said a new report by experts at the World Health Organization (WHO) lists children aged from six to 59 months as a target group for seasonal flu immunisation.
She said most European countries do not currently recommend vaccinating children but she agreed that there is strong evidence that influenza is a significant health burden in young children.
However, Dr Brown acknowledged that health authorities face a number of challenges in their efforts to improve flu vaccine coverage of under fives.
Influenza has not traditionally featured in childhood vaccination schedules which already include immunisation against more than a dozen infectious diseases. Adding two doses of flu vaccine to the list and requiring repeated annual vaccinations pose practical hurdles, according to a number of experts.
Dr Tsolia concluded by calling for new vaccines that will be able to elicit a “stronger, broader and longer-lasting immune response”, and she said additional research is required to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of introducing influenza vaccination into national immunisation programmes.
Read more about the report of the WHO’s Strategy Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE) on immunisation