Fear has been expressed about a possible flu epidemic in NI after it emerged schoolchildren here face delays to being vaccinated against the virus.
In recent weeks it was revealed that the annual vaccination programme for primary school pupils - a nasal spray given to youngsters to protect them from flu - had been affected by a UK-wide shortage.
It has been reported that primary school pupils as young as four years old were originally due to receive the vaccination this month, but the programme has been delayed until the middle of December.
In recent days a PHA spokesman said: "The Public Health Agency (PHA) has been made aware that there is likely to be a delay in the supply of some of the Fluenz Tetra children’s vaccine due to arrive next month. The vaccine is procured by Public Health England on behalf of all of the UK.
"The delay is due to issues relating to routine testing of the Fluenz Tetra nasal flu vaccine by the manufacturer and is not related to the safety or the efficacy of the vaccine.
"Work is under way to minimise potential disruption to the childhood flu immunisation programme in Northern Ireland caused by this. In line with the rest of the UK the Chief Medical Officer has requested GP’s prioritise children with underlying health conditions and pre-schoolers over the age of two."
Dr Gerry Waldron, Assistant Director of Public Health (Health Protection) at the PHA, said: “We have been exploring how to best use the available stock based on evidence and clinical advice, and taking into account projections on the revised delivery schedule to maximise protection in the community.
“Practices will continue to offer the vaccine to pre-schoolers and children in at risk groups as normal. The school vaccination programme is currently continuing as normal. Pupils at special schools have already received their vaccine.
“However, the disruption to supply may lead to vaccinations in some primary schools being rescheduled, but all eligible children will have an opportunity to receive their vaccine.
“Whilst this situation is unfortunate, it is completely outside our control and we would continue to urge eligible people to get vaccinated, as we know this is the best way to protect against the flu. Parents of at-risk children and pre-schoolers should make themselves aware of their own GP surgery’s flu vaccination arrangements.”
This issue does not impact on the adult flu vaccination programme, and we encourage all adults who are eligible to receive the flu vaccine to get it. This will not only help to protect them, but will also help to reduce the impact of flu in the wider community.
He continued: "We are working with our counterparts across the UK and the vaccine manufacturer, and as information is being updated daily, it is not possible to put a figure on the number of children whose vaccination will be delayed.
"However, everyone who is eligible should still be able to receive the flu vaccine in due course."