Millions of children could be left at the mercy of swine flu because pharmacies are refusing to vaccinate under-18s.
With doctors warning that the reopening of schools this week could trigger a ‘children’s epidemic’ of the virus, parents have been trying to buy the jab privately for their children.
Since October flu has killed 39, including 11 under-15s
But while High Street pharmacies will administer the jab to adults – charging between £7.50 and £12 – company policies dictate that they cannot do so to children, even when parents are present.
However, the Department of Health insists there is nothing to stop pharmacies giving the vaccine to children.
The development adds to the confusion surrounding the swine flu outbreak, which is predicted to ‘explode’ as at least nine million pupils return to their desks after the Christmas holidays.
There is already a shortage of vaccine at some surgeries and changes in vaccination policy mean that many Britons aren’t sure whether they still qualify for protection on the NHS.
For instance, healthy under-fives were able to receive free jabs last winter but are not entitled this year.
As a result, many parents are trying to obtain them privately – only to be turned away.
Boots refuses to vaccinate under-16s, while Sainsbury’s and Tesco set the bar even higher, at 18.
Those caught out by the rule include Sue Franklin, 36, a mother of three who tried to buy the vaccine for her eldest children, Olivia, 12, and Amy, 15. Her six-year-old daughter Daisy has asthma and so qualified for a jab on the NHS.
Mrs Franklin, of Malmesbury, in Wiltshire, said: ‘Everywhere I tried they said they would give me a jab, but not the girls.
‘I’m not expecting a jab for free, because they are rightly rationed on the NHS to those who need it most. But why is it that anyone can walk in off the street or in a supermarket and pay a few quid and get a jab, but if they are a child they can’t?’
Unfair treatment: Sue Franklin with daughters Daisy, six, and Olivia, 12
‘No one could tell me why children aren’t allowed. The message from the Government is that people should protect themselves, but I’m not allowed to protect my family – it’s a complete mess.
‘All the doctors and the pharmacies I rang said they had had loads of calls like mine. Clearly there’s something wrong somewhere.’
The Department of Health said those paying for a flu jab from a pharmacy were effectively going private, so the Government had no control over the situation.
A spokesman said: ‘There are no restrictions on who pharmacies give vaccinations to in a private capacity. If they decide they don’t want to do it, we cannot force them to do it. The vaccine sold at pharmacies is exactly the same as the one administered by the NHS.
‘It is perfectly safe and given to children under the age of five. There is nothing to stop pharmacies from giving it to healthy children.’
Last night, Boots said: ‘In accordance with our registration with the Care Quality Commission, Boots can only offer patients aged 16 years and above a private flu vaccination.’
As the number of fresh flu cases mounts, there are warnings the NHS is reaching crisis point.
Some 738 Britons are being treated for flu in intensive care and all 21 ExtraCorporeal Membrane Oxygenation heart and lung machines used to treat the most seriously ill patients are in use.
Even at the height of the swine flu pandemic in 2009 only 12 of the ECMO machines were ever in use at the same time.
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