In 2012, research using routine flu surveillance data demonstrated the important role that children play in the spreading of flu. Therefore, the UK expanded its flu vaccination programme to include 2-17 year olds.

Why was this work needed?

Flu is a widespread infectious disease with unpleasant symptoms. Although it rarely causes long term harm in healthy adults, it still causes a significant number of deaths, particularly among the over 65s. Research like this became even more important with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. With an improved understanding of the spread of viruses through the child population, the government were better able to respond appropriately such as school closures and exam cancellations.

What happened?

The researchers used laboratory results collected by Public Health England (now UK Health Security Agency), as well as other patient data, to estimate the numbers of people in different age brackets that caught flu. They then used this information to assess the potential benefits of extending the UK flu vaccination programme to children.

What were the benefits?

This study provided the evidence for the UK rolling out free flu vaccination to all 2-17 year olds by showing the high levels of flu infection in this age group. This partly benefits the children themselves, but particularly reflects their role in passing on the disease to others. By vaccinating this young age group, there is a significant benefit to the population as a whole. The case similar for Covid-19, whereby children were not particularly at risk themselves from catching the virus, but were playing a significant role in spreading it to other, more vulnerable populations.

What type of data was involved?

This research used a range of data to estimate the number of people diagnosed with flu, in particular Public Health England (now UKHSA) laboratory reports. It also drew on Hospital Episode Statistic (HES) data and GP data from the Royal College of General Practitioners Weekly Returns Service.

PHE had a statutory duty to collate and publish weekly data on infection rates across the country. Data from sources like HES were de-personalised before access and analysis.

Who funded and collaborated on this work?

This study was funded by the Department of Health.

Where can I go for more information?


Flu vaccines for all children

JCVI statement on its position on the annual influenza vaccination programme 16 November 2011

The burden of influenza in England by age and clinical risk group: a statistical analysis to inform vaccine policy