Michelle Falconer, Immunisation Nurse Specialist at Public Health England, explains why it’s important for children with liver disease to have the flu vaccine.
For healthy individuals, flu can be an unpleasant infection that lasts for around a week. Symptoms can include chills, achy muscles, a temperature, sore throat, dry cough and stuffy nose. But for those with an underlying medical condition such as liver disease, the risk of developing serious illness following flu infection is higher. Symptoms may last longer and complications can include ear infections, bronchitis or pneumonia. Some people may require admission to hospital.
For this reason, all patients with chronic liver disease such as biliary atresia, cirrhosis and hepatitis, are recommended to have a flu vaccine each year. The vaccine can be given to children aged between two and 18 years as a nasal spray and for those children with liver disease, who are aged six months to two years the vaccine is injected into a muscle.
Flu circulates in the community each winter with most cases being seen after the middle of November but this can vary year to year. As protection from the vaccine can take up to two weeks to develop, the best time to have the vaccine is between September and early November. This gives the vaccine a chance to work before flu viruses start to circulate in the community.
What is flu?
Flu is a respiratory infection caused by a virus and spread by contact with respiratory droplets or direct contact with respiratory secretions. This means that it can spread in communities and families very quickly. There are different strains of flu virus that circulate each year. Some people may not have any symptoms but those with an underlying medical condition may develop severe illness if they get flu.
What does the vaccine do?
The vaccine stimulates the immune system so that if you come into contact with the flu virus after you have been vaccinated, your body can quickly recognise and respond to it. This means that you will have some protection against the virus but it is important to remember that the vaccine does not protect against other respiratory viruses such as the common cold and that it takes around two weeks to work. As the flu virus can change from year to year and protection from the vaccine only lasts for one flu season, those with chronic liver disease should have the vaccine each year to ensure that they are protected.
Who should have the flu vaccine?
All those aged six months and older with chronic liver disease, including but not limited to biliary atresia, hepatitis and cirrhosis, should have the flu vaccine each year.
Where can I get the vaccine from?
If you or your child has chronic liver disease, your GP should invite you into the surgery to have the vaccine. If you are unsure whether you or your child should have the vaccine you can always check with your GP or practice nurse. There is no cost for the vaccine for patients with chronic liver disease.
Is the vaccine safe to have?
Yes, all vaccines have to undergo strict tests to ensure that they are safe and effective.
Can children who have had a liver transplant be vaccinated?
Transplanted children can be vaccinated. If they are immunosuppressed, either due to transplant or their treatment they could still have inactivated vaccines. Parents should, however, take advice from their consultant before having live vaccines. Children may be offered the injected inactivated flu vaccine rather than the live intranasal vaccine if they are immunosuppressed.
Will there be any side effects?
Some people may develop a sore arm around the injection site, others may develop a temperature, headache or stuffy nose but these usually only last for a day or two.
Where can I get more information about flu vaccine?
You can find more general information on the flu vaccine on the NHS’s website nhs.uk/conditions/flu