The UK government looks set to become the first in the world to extend its flu vaccine programme to include all children from the age of two upwards, free of charge.
Children in 'at-risk' groups, including those with asthma or heart conditions, were already eligible to receive the flu jab, but on the advice of immunisation experts the Department of Health will be extending its scope, at a cost of around £100 million a year.
After considering the evidence, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) concluded that while there are "significant challenges" in extending the programme, these are "outweighed by the health benefits that a comprehensive immunisation programme could bring".
The news is particularly good for AstraZeneca, as the JCVI has advised that its live attenuated intranasal influenza vaccine Fluenz should be the vaccine of choice for extending the programme, "given the evidence of effectiveness, protection against drifted strains and safety, and in the absence of any
equivalently effective alternative authorised vaccine".
Fluenz won European approval in February 2011 for the prophylaxis of influenza in children aged from 24 months, but it has been on the US market - where it is sold under the tradename FluMist - since 2003.
The first influenza vaccine to be approved in Europe specifically for children, it is also the first needle-free flu jab on the market, but it has also shown superior protection to its injected rivals.
54.9% cut in flu cases
According to AstraZeneca, clinical trials involving more than 20,000 children showed a 54.9% cut in cases of influenza in children who received its nasally-administered vaccine compared with those who received the traditional influenza jab.
The JCVI has suggested expanding the flu vaccination programme through schools and possibly GPs for pre-school children, realistically from about 2014, to give AstraZeneca ample time to ramp op production of Fluenz.
It also noted that in order implementation of the expanded programme to be successful, "it would be vital" to inform and educate everyone involved, parents, children, teachers and health professionals about influenza and the direct and indirect benefits of influenza vaccination of children, via an extensive communications before and after its introduction.