Dr Susan Turnbull has written to all headteachers to provide reassurance to parents who have raised concerns about the nasal spray Fluenz, which is being offered to all primary school pupils this week as the flu-vaccination programme gets under way.
This year, for the first time, secondary school students up to the age of 16 will also be offered the vaccine.
In the letter, Dr Turnbull says she has become aware of a small group of parents who have voiced concerns about the vaccine which ‘seem to be based on a misunderstanding’.
She said: ‘The concerns I have been hearing about, propagated and amplified on social media, are that the vaccine contains “live” influenza virus, and could infect children instead of protecting them.
‘It does not. Fluenz is a “live attenuated vaccine” – “attenuated” meaning that processing has weakened the virus to render it incapable of actually causing influenza infection.
‘Such vaccines work by prompting the immune system to produce its own antibodies, ready to prevent the vaccine-protected person from becoming infected by “real” flu when the seasonal (winter) flu virus starts circulating.
‘By contrast, real, un-attenuated “wild” flu virus is very infectious… especially between children in a normal winter flu season.’
Dr Turnbull said that children are at a higher risk than adults of catching and spreading flu, and if they did contract the virus the obvious consequences would be time off school for the pupil and, often, lost days at work for at least one parent.
One of the reasons why the rumours have spread is the very detailed information which manufacturers are legally required to publish about any medicinal products, Dr Turnbull said in the letter.
The product information for Fluenz refers to a ‘very low theoretical risk of flu infection to individuals who have very severe immunosuppression’, according to the letter.
Such individuals, for example bone marrow transplant patients, would already be subject to many measures, usually including isolation, to protect them from illness while their immune system is fully suppressed.
Dr Turnbull added: ‘It would be a terrible shame if misinformation generating misplaced concern were to stop some of our children from receiving safe and effective protection from infection in the coming flu season.
‘If my own (now adult) children were still of school age, I would want them to be at the front of the queue for this and all other safe, effective vaccines (as indeed they were), and as my two small grandchildren currently are too.’