Parents are being urged to get young children vaccinated against flu after the chief medical officer for England warned too few toddlers are being inoculated.
Children are the main source of transmission of seasonal flu, according to the Department of Health (DOH).
It rolled out a programme last year in the hope of reducing the spread of infection from children to other children, to adults and to those in clinical risk groups of any age.
Two and three-year-olds were vaccinated for the first time last winter and the programme was extended to four-year-olds in September this year.
Toddlers are given Fluenz Tetra, a nasal spray, said to be quick and painless to administer.
DOH agency Public Health England said that young children were “super-spreaders” and by having the nasal vaccine, a child reduces the risk to a baby brother or sister who is too young to be vaccinated, as well as other children and grandparents who may be more vulnerable to the complications of flu.
Two million children aged two to four are eligible for the free nasal spray, but the latest figures from the DOH show that up to November 23 only 28.5% of two-year-olds had been immunised, down from 34.1% this time last year, 30.5% of three-year-olds had been immunised, slightly down from 30.6% this time last year and 23.9% of four-year-olds had been given the vaccine.
Professor Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer for England, said half of mothers did not know the free spray existed or that children needed vaccinating every year.
She said: “Flu can be really nasty for toddlers, leading to time off nursery which has a big impact on mums and dads and sometimes even a stay in hospital.
“They also spread the virus easily and often pass flu to grandparents and other relatives who can become very ill, fast.
“Giving two, three and four year olds the free nasal spray really is in everyone’s interests if you want to help avoid a miserable winter for all the family.”
Public Health England’s plan is to bring five and six-year-olds into the programme in 2015/16, then work up through primary school years.
Children should not have the nasal vaccine if they are wheezy, are severely asthmatic ie being treated with oral steroids or high dose inhaled steroids, are allergic to eggs or any part of the vaccine or have a condition that severely weakens their immune system.
Symptoms of flu include fever, sore throat, aching muscles and extreme tiredness.