All children are to be given the flu vaccination after experts said it could save up to 2,000 lives a year. The scheme, which is expected to be rolled out in 2014, will see all children aged two to 17 given the vaccination through a nasal spray. Younger children will be given the spray by their GP and schoolchildren will receive it at school.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which advises the government on vaccination policy, said the flu programme should be extended to children because it could reduce the rate of infection by 40%.
The health secretary, Andrew Lansley, has accepted the recommendation, a Department of Health spokesman said.
At present, over-65s, pregnant women and people with a serious medical condition, including children, are eligible for a seasonal flu jab.
The UK will become the first country to offer the flu vaccine to healthy children free of charge, with the measure expected to cost £100m a year.
Healthy children are among those least likely to develop complications from being infected by flu, but their close contact with each other means they are more likely to transmit the virus to one another and other vulnerable people.
The mass immunisation programme is estimated to lead to 11,000 fewer hospital admissions and 2,000 fewer deaths every year.
The Department of Health said it needed to examine a number of issues before the programme can be rolled out.
Masses of the vaccine, which will be used on about 9 million children, need to be sourced and a decision needs to be made on who will deliver the vaccine – whether it should be school nurses or other healthcare workers.
Health experts also need to decide how the programme will be delivered in a six- to eight-week period ahead of the flu season.
The chief medical officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, said: “Severe winter flu and its complications can make people really ill and can kill, particularly those who are weak and frail, which is why we already offer vaccinations to the most at risk groups.
“We accept the advice of our expert committee that rolling out a wider programme could further protect children, with even a modest takeup helping to protect our most vulnerable.
“There are significant challenges to delivering a programme that requires up to 9 million children to be vaccinated during a six-week period and we will look at the recommendations in detail to decide how best to develop and deliver the programme.”
Professor Adam Finn, professor of paediatrics at the University of Bristol, said: “I think vaccination of healthy schoolchildren with the new nasal flu vaccine is a good idea as we know it’s effective and safe and flu can be a serious illness in childhood, not just in old age.
“There should be time to do some more research before we introduce the vaccine to help us predict how well such a programme would be accepted and would work.
“Although children don’t die of flu as often as old people do, they can get sick enough to require hospitalisation. Many others are ill enough to require time off school, which is disruptive for them and their families.
“Children also spread flu to other children and to adults including school staff and their families. Preventing flu in children should benefit all children and others too.”