Children put elderly relatives at risk of flu during visits
Grandparent visits over the festive season helped push up the spread of flu, as older people caught the infection from children who are “super spreaders”.
As families socialised in homes over Christmas, the risk of the flu virus being picked up – particularly by vulnerable grandparents – increased.
The Irish Independent has learned the National Immunisation Advisory Committee is now considering whether the vaccine should be made available for all children, for their own protection and to help ease the spread of flu to vulnerable groups like older people.
Prof Shaun O’Keeffe, a geriatrician in Merlin Park Hospital Galway, said: “People together in confined spaces are more likely to pick it up from each other.”
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It comes as hospitals saw a record 760 patients waiting on trolleys yesterday.
Nearly five times more patients have been hospitalised with flu so far this winter, compared to the same weeks during last year's season.
A spokeswoman for the Royal College of Physicians' advisory committee on vaccinations confirmed it will examine if all children should be offered the flu vaccine.
"The committee will look at the impact of influenza on children, the potential benefits of the vaccine, as well as the safety of the vaccine.
"It would also look at the impact of the influenza vaccine on children in other jurisdictions where it has been introduced," she said.
"The expansion of the flu vaccination would have significant cost implications, which would have to be evaluated."
Dr Cillian de Gascun, director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory in UCD, said: "Once infected, children shed more virus for longer periods of time than adults."
The combination of plenty of virus and "plenty of human contact over time" constitutes an ideal setting for flu transmission, he explained.
Prof Sam McConkey, an expert in infectious diseases at the Royal College of Surgeons, agreed the authorities should examine if there is benefit in offering the flu vaccine routinely to all children.
This is the practice in the UK to protect children and also vulnerable people, including older people and those with underlying illnesses.
Asked if these grandparents' visits should be reduced, he said: "You need to balance the infection risks against the social benefit of visits for young and old."
If a child has symptoms it is worth keeping a distance until they have recovered and good hand hygiene habits should be observed, he added.
People who have the flu can self-treat at home, but "if they are very sick and need oxygen they should go to hospital", he added. "If breathing fast and distressed breathing need to be checked by a doctor or a nurse."
The worst hit hospital yesterday was University Hospital Limerick where 92 patients were on trolleys.
A spokesman said: "There are 28 inpatients with flu in the hospital and demand is high for beds for patients with specific infection prevention and control requirements.
"A ward at St John's Hospital has been identified to cohort flu patients from University Hospital Limerick."
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Liam Woods, of the HSE, said another 190 hospital beds will be opened in the first three months of the year.
Health Minister Simon Harris said the flu outbreak may have peaked, but he will not know for sure until later in the week. Mr Harris said "everything that can be done is being done" to reduce the number of people on trolleys.
He said 99 of the new hospital beds will be available before the end of the month.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the Government will support the HSE in taking any emergency measures necessary and he blamed the "severe flu season" for the spike in the number of patients on trolleys.
"While it was predicted, predicting a severe flu season is a bit like predicting a storm. It doesn't stop it happening. It still happens and we have to try manage it and prepare for it as best we can," he said.
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