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Devon head teacher urges schools to protect against flu after outbreak left pupils in hospital last year

Devon head teacher urges schools to protect against flu after outbreak left pupils in hospital last year

A Devon head teacher has urged teachers and parents across the county to do all they can to get pupils vaccinated after a flu outbreak forced her to temporarily close her school last winter.

Dozens of children and staff at Woodlands School in Plymouth, whose pupils have complex physical and sensory difficulties, were taken ill by the highly infectious virus in February 2018.

The outbreak left some pupils, many of whom have high medical needs, in hospital and head teacher Andrea Hemmens had no choice but to close the school for two days.

This year, the school is taking extra precautions, including encouraging children and staff to get the flu vaccination, and is urging others to do the same.

Ms Hemmens said: “Everybody in the school was affected - staff in the classrooms, the children, staff in the office who aren’t usually around the children, everybody.

“We ended up having to close the school for two whole days which is a really significant impact on the children and we don't want to repeat of that.

“We know that we had a really poor uptake in terms of flu vaccinations for the children, while quite a lot of the staff thought they didn't need to take precautions. I think that's what led to so many people being very vulnerable and then ultimately catching the flu.

“We want to make sure we are a healthy, fit community and that we can go on this year, so the message we are giving to our staff and our families is to get vaccinated.”

The school’s 88 pupils, aged two to 19, come from across Plymouth, Devon and Cornwall and many are very vulnerable medically, with some especially susceptible to breathing conditions.

Alison Meads, school nurse at Woodlands added: “Some of my children were very poorly and ended up in hospital, as did some of the staff. We worked very closely with Public Health England and they helped us to manage the outbreak.

“During the two-day period that the school was shut, we had a deep clean right the way through the building.

“Since that outbreak, it's really made us realise how very vulnerable our school is. With a school population of 88 children and all of the staff working so closely together, an outbreak like that can spread so quickly.

“The best way to protect against the flu is to have the vaccine. The vaccine is a very safe vaccine and for children, it's given by nasal spray, usually in school. It’s just a quick spray up the nostril which we find most children are very tolerant of.”

The free vaccination programme has been extended this year meaning the nasal spray vaccine is offered to primary school children from reception through to and including year 5. Pre-schoolers aged 2-4 are also eligible for a free vaccine.

Children tend to be ‘super spreaders’ of flu, so protecting them is crucial for protecting the rest of the population, particularly those who have long-term conditions, elderly relatives or those with vulnerable immune systems.

Sarah Ogilvie, public health consultant at Plymouth City Council, said: “If you have the flu vaccine, you’re around 60% less likely to develop flu. And if you do go on to get flu then the symptoms are likely to be less severe than if you haven't had the vaccine.

“It's important to remember that you need to have the flu vaccine every year because the vaccine used will change depending on the flu strains that we know are likely to be circulating. 

“It's really important to have your children immunised against flu because children are not very good at washing their hands and find it harder to maintain good hand hygiene. Children are sometimes referred to as super spreaders, because they spread flu much more easily.”

Advice on getting the flu jab:

  • Parents of children from reception class to school year five must give their consent for their child to have the vaccination at school and this year most schools in Devon are asking parents to use a simple online consent form – so make sure you check your inbox for the email or your child could miss out.
  • If your child is aged 2-4 (but is not in school) or has a long term condition like asthma or diabetes, contract your GP and book them in for a free vaccination. Clinics are available now and are filling up so get in touch now to protect your child.

As well as getting the vaccine, practising good hand hygiene by catching coughs and sneezes in a tissue, throwing it away and washing your hands after can help limit its spread – catch it, bin it, kill it. 

Remember, flu vaccines cannot give you flu. The injected flu vaccine given to adults contains inactivated flu viruses, so it can't give you flu. Your arm may feel a bit sore where you were injected, and some people get a slight temperature and aching muscles for a couple of days afterwards. Other reactions are very rare.

The children's nasal spray flu vaccine contains live but weakened flu viruses that will not give your child flu.

You can also find more information here.