Parents of children born during the COVID-19 pandemic are being urged to get their children flu shots, with almost 5,000 cases in children aged zero to four so far this year. 

More than 43,800 people have been diagnosed with influenza so far this year, according to the National Communicable Diseases Surveillance Dashboard (NCDSD).

Of those, the highest cohort of those diagnosed with flu so far this year are those aged zero to four, with almost 5,000 reported cases. 

Last year, those under the age of 14 had the highest influenza notification rate in the country and a “low” vaccination uptake, according to the Department of Health and Aged Care. 

Chair of the Immunisation Coalition and GP Dr Rod Pearce AM said young children were particularly vulnerable to the flu and the number of recorded flu cases was rising as isolation and COVID-19 cases waned.

“Not only are they more likely to catch it, but they are also more vulnerable to serious disease,” Dr Pearce said.

“We’ve now got some children who were born when influenza was not circulating because of COVID, so a three or four-year old child hasn’t seen influenza through natural protection so, the only thing they’ve got to rely on is their flu vaccine, otherwise they’re going to be hit by a disease the body has not seen.

“Influenza is a nasty disease in children, we’ve always recognised that and that’s why we’ve got a free vaccine, but we’ve also got a population that hasn’t seen the flu before so, they don’t have any natural protection.”

He said 13 children died from contracting influenza last year in Australia.

Dr Pearce said the flu season still peaked in winter, but the season was becoming longer, in part due to international travel.

“Flu is a seasonal and winter season mainly, but we are now seeing it in the northern part of Australia all year round … and the season is going longer,” he said.

Mother-of-two Hannah Pianta has recently fought off a bad cold after her daughters Alba and Belle contracted a virus. 

“It’s horrible as a parent, because you’re hearing them breathe and cough,” Ms Pianta said.

“Their sleep is then impacted, and their eating is impacted … it’s horrible for them.”

Ms Pianta, who lives near WA’s Bunbury region, said she had kept her daughters away from daycare since being on maternity leave and has booked their flu vaccinations this week.

“They’re not exposed to that time in daycare where there’s more infections going around and their immune system can build up quicker,” she said.

“As a parent, a peace of mind that I can provide for myself, is to try and help my kids not get as sick.”

Adelaide mother Anh Tran told the ABC her five-year-old son Nicholas was very sick after he contracted the flu late last year. 

She said her family was travelling at the time when her son woke in the middle of the night with his skin turning “dark red”.

He had  painful joints and a fever that lasted more than three days.

“Cold and flu symptoms also were present in terms of a runny nose and a cough but with influenza, Nicholas would complain of joint pain,” Ms Tran said.

“So, that’s the big difference  the really high fevers and joint pain and they don’t understand why it just hurts.”

The mother said her family booked in for flu jabs every year, but her sons contracted influenza at the end of flu season on two occassions.

“Both of them, they always get it around the four-to-five month mark, and that’s what the GP said normally the flu vaccine lasts around three-to-four months,” she said.

Fewer flu vaccines administered so far this year

Australian Immunisation Register data shows that from March 1 to April 28, 2,990,814 people had been vaccinated against the flu, compared to 3,573,490 in the same time period last year. 

Dr Pearce said falling vaccination rates, in part because of a misunderstanding between COVID and the flu, would also have an impact on cases and severity.

“Our vaccination rates are low compared to last year and the incidence of flu is the same or more and we’ve just come off a season when we’ve had flu as a less of a peak, but a longer season,” he said.

“COVID is a different disease, it’s doesn’t always follow the winter season and it’s not such an important disease for children, but nastier for older people, whereas influenza is a nasty disease in children and we’ve got good, safe vaccines.

Fewer Australians have had a flu vaccination so far in 2024, compared to 2023.(Pixabay)

“There is a difference, but we think people in their minds are confusing the two and there is a bit of fatigue for those who are getting the vaccine and those who are giving it.”

He hoped reminding Australians that the vaccines for the flu were effective and safe and that they were subsidised and targeted could help boost vaccine rates and lower case numbers.

“We are really under vaccinating the vulnerable population,” Dr Pearce said.

“Why not get vaccinated and not be one of the statistics?”

This year, free flu vaccination is available for children aged six months to five years old, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged six months and over, those who are pregnant and those who are over 65. 

People aged over six months living with certain medical conditions including chronic respiratory conditions, cardiac disease and diabetes are also eligible for a free vaccine. 

Some states and territories, including Queensland and Western Australia are offering free vaccinations to all residents aged over six months.

Posted , updated