On the one hand, it’s good news that more people will be getting the flu vaccine, full stop, for the simple reason that the more people who are vaccinated, the harder it will be for flu to spread, meaning we’ll have fewer cases of flu overall, even in people who are not vaccinated. On the other hand, the reason for this announcement by Minister Harris wasn’t immediately obvious to a lot of people yesterday:
I have decided to make flu vaccine free to all children aged 2-12 this year & all of those in the defined at-risk groups from 6 months to 69 years. All persons aged over 70 already have access without charges. This expanded free access is really important in context of #Covid19
— Simon Harris TD (@SimonHarrisTD) May 18, 2020
The thing that jumps out at you immediately is that although flu claims the lives of 40,000 people annually in the United States alone, and although it can be more severe in children, deaths skew vastly towards the elderly. According to the Centre for Disease Control, people over 65 account for between 55 and 70% of deaths from flu every single year. While some children do die from the flu, it tends to be most lethal in those with pre-existing conditions that have weakened their immune system, or left them more vulnerable to respiratory infections generally.
Second, Harris specifically mentions the flu vaccine in the context of Coronavirus. But again, Coronavirus, as we know, basically does not present a threat to children, many of whom are totally asymptomatic. The youngest recorded death from the Coronavirus in Ireland was in a 23 year old, and while there have been isolated cases of deaths in children – a five year old in the UK and a 12 year old in Belgium – the disease in general doesn’t appear to pose a threat to children.
So, at face value, if you look at the vaccination programme as simply an attempt to reduce the threat to children, it seems like an expensive investment with not much upside to it. So, there’s probably something else going on – what might it be?
The answer is probably that while the flu poses little threat to children, children play a big role in spreading it. With schools due to re-open, in theory, this September, officials are probably very wary of the risks of a second wave of Covid-19. If that second wave were to coincide with a particularly bad flu season, you could have total carnage in the health system, and many more deaths than usual, especially if people were unlucky enough to catch the flu and the coronavirus at the same time.
Vaccinating schoolchildren for flu, then, is probably an attempt not to save the lives of children, but to limit the spread of flu through schools this autumn and winter, and slowing its spread overall.
But that poses another question: If the department believes, as it apparently does, that the spread of seasonal flu can be limited by vaccinating schoolkids, why are we only doing this now?
Forget about Coronavirus, for a moment. Every single year, winter flu season causes a crisis in our hospitals, without fail. This has been the case for at least the last 20 years. The flu vaccine isn’t new, either. If it’s possible, even in theory, to limit the spread of the seasonal flu by getting to children, then why has it taken a global pandemic of a more deadly illness to make the Government think about doing this? If it’s good policy now, then it’s been good policy for 20 years, but nobody’s been doing it.
Oh well. Lessons learned, eh?