“I have seen children requiring full life support because of flu”
Dr Richard Chavasse is a consultant in paediatric respiratory medicine at St George’s Hospital – so he knows quite a bit about flu. After having asthma as a child, and working with an inspirational consultant in the field, Dr Chavasse decided to specialise children’s respiratory medicine.
“Working with children is just fantastic,” he said. “I see children in outpatients, trying to keep them well at home and in school, enjoying life to the full. And I look after children who are acutely unwell in hospital or intensive care. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing a child go home after a long stay in hospital, sometimes of several months.”
We spoke to Dr Chavasse for the expert view on flu, asthma and keeping children well during a winter like no other…
What’s the first thing parents should know about flu and young children?
Flu is not just a cold. It can make a child very unwell, even those who are generally thought to be fit and healthy. If your child has an underlying medical condition, such as a lung or heart disorder, epilepsy or a problem with their immune system, and they catch flu, they will be much more likely to require hospital admission. For children who have asthma, flu may be a factor that causes an asthma attack.
But children rarely suffer from flu, don’t they?
Not true – up to 10% of children may get ‘flu’ in any year. Although many have a relatively mild infection, I have seen children requiring full life support because of influenza and sadly, albeit rare, some who have died, despite everyone’s best care. Unlike Covid-19, we also know that young children are great spreaders of flu. Reducing infections in this age group helps to reduce spread to people at risk.
How safe is the children’s flu vaccine?
Many millions of doses have been given and the safety profile is very good. As with any vaccine you may get a few mild symptoms, but you cannot catch flu from it.
What are these ‘mild symptoms’?
Your child may get a blocked nose, a mild headache or temperature and a few muscle aches, as the body makes its immune response to the vaccine, which may last a day or two.
What’s your top advice for keeping young children well this winter?
We all want to keep well, particularly in these difficult times. Good hand hygiene, following the ‘catch it, bin it, kill it’ advice and a healthy diet and exercise all help.
Tell us more about the impact of Covid-19 on your patients
This coronavirus does not seem to cause severe illness in most children, which is good news. We have had only a very small number of children admitted to hospital; even among those with complex medical conditions, which is very different to the impact in adults.
In the first lockdown, we saw a dramatic decrease in the number of children being admitted to hospital with conditions like asthma. My assumption is that was due to reduced transmission of other viruses, coupled with improved air quality – so a small positive coming out of coronavirus!
That said, children have continued to get other illnesses and it is important that these are not missed or ignored in fear of Coronavirus. We have also seen a major impact on children’s mental health during the school closures and lockdown. We must make sure that children are not overlooked or ignored during this second spike and as we enter the post pandemic phase.
Any more messages for parents?
Make sure you seek help early if you are worried about your child. Local paediatric services – from the emergency department to outpatients – as well as GPs are operating and ready to see your child. And we have processes in place to make a hospital trip as safe as it can be.