The flu jab
Autumn is always a busy time for vaccinations in the surgery, as it’s when we give the annual flu jabs to those over 65, and those with long-term medical conditions, such as asthma and diabetes.
But this year it’s been exceptionally busy, because we’ve been offering flu vaccinations to all two- and three- year-old children as well. The reason for this is not only does flu cause a lot of illness in young kids, but they are also pretty good at spreading the infection to others – after all, what two year old puts their hand in front of their mouth before they sneeze? And for that age group, a sleeve is usually much more convenient for wiping a dripping nose than a tissue!
The new vaccine we’re giving to kids is very different from that offered to adults, mainly because it is given as a nasal spray. In my experience, two year olds still think they are being approached with a needle, and fight (and my legs have bruises to show for all those kicks from little feet!) but three year olds can understand I’m not about to jab them with a needle and generally sit still.
One puff is given in each nostril, and it clearly feels a little strange, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Like all flu vaccines, it’s grown in eggs, so it’s not suitable for kids with egg allergy. Unlike the jab given to adults, which contains dead virus particles, the nasal spray contains live, altered viruses. It can’t cause the flu in a well child, but there is a theoretical risk that it could cause an infection in someone else who has a very weak immune system, such as someone undergoing chemotherapy. So kids who have been given the vaccine should be kept away from friends or relatives who could be at risk for a week afterwards.
In future years, the vaccine programme will probably be extended to more children, but this year it’s being targeted at two and three year olds. So if you have a child of this age, contact your surgery now to arrange for them to be given the vaccine. No one likes seeing children suffer with illness and this is a safe and effective way of helping to keep them well this winter.
The shingles jab
The other new vaccine we’ve started offering this autumn is one that helps protect against shingles. This is a nasty illness caused by the same virus that causes chicken pox.
After anyone has chicken pox, a few particles of the virus responsible, herpes zoster, lie inactive in the nerve roots of the spinal cord. In most people, they never cause any symptoms, but in a few, the virus can suddenly become active again in one nerve root. It travels down the nerve to the skin, where first it causes tingling sensation, then a couple of days later blisters appear, just like the blisters of chicken pox.
The rash only appears on one side of the body, and can be very painful, especially if it affects the face, around the eye. Though the blisters heal after about a week, pain in the affected area – post herpetic neuralgia – can persist for weeks or months later.
Quite why some people get shingles and others don’t is a mystery, but it can be linked to a weakening of the immune system and is more common in older people, especially those over 70.
The new vaccine, Zostervax, can help boost the immune system against herpes zoster, and reduce the chance of having a bout of shingles. The aim eventually is for everyone over 70 to be given the vaccine, but as supplies are limited, it is being offered each year to those aged 70 and 79. It can be given at the same time as the annual flu jab, so if you haven’t been to your surgery yet. Make an appointment to go as soon as possible.