Under-fives to be given swine flu jab

Healthy children aged under five are to be given the swine flu jab, it was confirmed today.

Currently people in priority groups - including young children with asthma or diabetes - are being vaccinated. But the programme will now be rolled out to children with no underlying health issues, aged over six months and under five .

New figures show there were an estimated 53,000 new cases of swine flu in England in the last week, down from 64,000 in the week before. The number of people needing hospital care for the virus is 783, down from 785, in the previous week. Of those in hospital, 180 were in intensive care, up from 173 in the previous week. The number of people dying with swine flu has also risen from 124 deaths in England to 142.

The chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson said the drop could be due to a lag effect caused by the school half term.

The number of cases of swine flu tend to be higher when children are in school as they are known to spread the virus easily.

Last week, the death toll in the UK stood at 182, with 124 deaths in England, 33 in Scotland, 11 in Northern Ireland and 14 in Wales.

People aged six months to 65 in priority groups, including those with compromised immune systems, heart disease, asthma, diabetes and pregnant women, are currently being vaccinated.

The Government will announce if healthy children will be vaccinated alongside these groups or once the initial programme has finished.

The UK-wide policy was officially confirmed by the Scottish Government today ahead of a similar announcement in England, expected later.

Scottish Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon said: "I am able to announce today that the next group in the population that will be vaccinated, or offered vaccination, is children aged over six months and under five years."

NHS figures show that children under 16 are the age group most likely to be admitted to hospital with swine flu, and 21 per cent of deaths in England are among under-14s.

Ms Sturgeon said around 260,000 children fall into the new category in Scotland.

They will be offered the jab from mid December, with the whole group ready for vaccination in the New Year.

She said: "Negotiations have started to deliver the vaccine through GP surgeries.

"Young children will be offered the vaccine as soon as GPs complete the vaccination of the priority groups.

"We anticipate this will happen during December, although completion of this phase of the campaign is not expected until mid January.

"Parents of children who are in the age group should wait to be contacted to go to their local GP surgery."

The decision was made after independent scientific advice.

The vast majority of children who fall ill suffer only mild symptoms, Ms Sturgeon said.

"We do want to ensure that young children are fully protected from the virus," she added.

Advice has also been given to officials that unpaid carers who are responsible for elderly or disabled people should be in the next phase of the swine flu programme.

Ms Sturgeon said: "We intend to discuss this advice with carers' organisations and consider how we can identify the carers involved."

She said 43,000 frontline staff in Scotland have already taken the vaccine.

Further details on uptake will be published from next week.

She said 715,500 doses of vaccine have been received in Scotland - equal to 55 per cent of the total required for priority groups.

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