Vaccinating children against flu protects low-risk elderly people as effectively as vaccinating everyone over 65, a study has found.
The report, published in Lancet Public Health, suggests that health officials might ‘reconsider’ their flu strategy once further research is undertaken to substantiate findings.
The study, led by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Public Health England, found that vaccination in children early in the flu season could reduce low-risk cases of flu through herd immunity as much as – and in some scenarios more so than – vaccination of the elderly people themselves, if the uptake among this group is slower.
The researchers used a mathematical model based on 14 years of surveillance data (1995-2009) estimating flu infections with and without the child vaccine programme (covering children aged 2-16), varying levels of coverage and speed of vaccine uptake.
They also assessed cost-effectiveness through the number of quality-adjusted life years (QALYs) each intervention would give.
The results showed that after roll-out of the vaccine for younger people, vaccination for low-risk elderly people would only be borderline cost-effective and in some scenarios would no longer be cost-effective.
The paper said: ‘If the same number of LAIV [live-attenuated influenza vaccine] doses were purchased, administration of them by the end of October would prevent the need for the entire low-risk elderly vaccine programme.’
The elderly programme would become less cost-effective especially if NICE does as proposed and lowers the threshold of value for money of new vaccine programmes to £13,000 per QALY.
However, the results still supported vaccinating people of all ages at high-risk of complications from flu.
The Government has recently rolled out the live-attenuated flu vaccine for young children in England and Wales and is extending this to all school-age children.
Dr Katherine Atkins, assistant professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine co-author of the study, said: ‘People who are vulnerable to serious complications as a result of flu infection, including the elderly, have historically been the target for seasonal vaccination programmes worldwide.
‘However, flu vaccine programmes are expensive because all eligible people who receive the vaccine must do so every year. Developing the most cost-effective strategy for vaccination is therefore vital, both for population health and financially stretched health services.’
This comes after reports that the vaccine has failed to protect children in the US, although public health chiefs have said that UK data show a positive impact.