Kids, flu and travel: What parents should know

It’s a fact that influenza is the most common, vaccine-preventable health risk for travellers.

And, the more you travel, the higher your risk of getting flu.

That’s especially true for little travellers.

Here are some other things parents should know about kids, flu and travel:

* During outbreaks, a higher percentage of children get sick than adults. (Medical science is not sure why – probably because adults have some residual immunity from previous bouts of flu and/or from having been vaccinated in the past.)

* Children younger than six months (who are too young to be vaccinated) are susceptible to the flu and tend to have severe cases.

Once infected, children harbour the virus for longer than adults, making kids a major source of transmission during outbreaks.


Flu strains are constantly changing

One reason why flu is such a constant travel health issue is that the virus’ strains are constantly changing. Almost every year, a new vaccine formula is needed to accommodate the changes – or mutations – in the virus for the coming winter.

A ‘universal’ flu vaccine that protects against all strains for an extended period is the Holy Grail for vaccine makers. It’s still some way off.

We currently only have the southern hemisphere flu vaccine available in Australia and it may differ somewhat to the available northern hemisphere flu vaccine. If one is planning to travel in a  the northern hemisphere winter we would advise getting the current flu vaccine in Australia if not previously vaccinated in the same year.

Can you get the vaccine after you arrive at your northern hemisphere destination?

Yes, and you should consider doing do so if you are planning an extended stay, according to Travelvax Australia’s Medical Director, Dr Ed Bajrovic said.

However, because it takes two weeks for vaccination to protect kids or adults, it is not worthwhile getting vaccinated unless you are staying for longer than a few weeks. It is important too to keep in mind that children up to the age of  9 years who have not previously been vaccinated against influenza need 2 doses of Flu 28 days apart.


Young babies need protection

“Immunisation is the best protection against flu,” Dr Bajrovic said.

“Indeed, all adults and older children who have contact with infants too young to be immunised should themselves be vaccinated to protect the baby.

“The seasonal vaccine is usually around 70% effective against infection – even higher in some years.

“But the problem for travellers taking small children into the northern winter is that there’s no vaccine available in Australia until early March.

“That makes it even more important for parents to be aware of how the virus is transmitted and to take measures to minimise the risk of infection.”


Five flu facts for travelling parents

So, if you’re a parent travelling overseas with kids – especially during the northern or southern flu season – there are some flu facts you should know:

  1. In the airport, the risk of flu can be high – in fact, higher than on the plane. People from all over the world are passing through busy terminals and some are coming from places where flu will have already broken out.
  2. Use soap and water, or alcohol-based hand sanitiser or wipes, to clean your hands and your child’s BEFORE preparing food, eating, or inserting or removing contact lenses and AFTER using the toilet, changing nappies, or touching or handling items that may be contaminated by handling.
  3. Wherever you may find them, flu germs can last for hours – even days – on seats, armrests, taps, and toilet doors. You can reduce the risk of infection (and, indeed, infections such as norovirus and those that cause traveller’s diarrhoea) by using alcohol wipes to disinfect hard surfaces within your child’s reach, including seats, trays and armrests. Hand sanitiser comes in convenient gel, foam, and liquid solutions. Some upmarket brands include natural products and essential oils that moisturise and condition your skin – just check that the product contains the 60% alcohol necessary to kill germs effectively.
  4. Think flu if someone is coughing persistently within two rows of your seat. If you can, move away. If you’re already aboard, ask to switch seats – if possible. (In 2011, an Australian study of flu contracted during flights found there is a ‘hot zone’ of two seats in any direction from an infected passenger. Those in the zone were found to have a 7.7% higher chance of getting flu.) 
  5. If you can’t move seats, ask the flight attendant for a mask – or suggest your sick neighbour wear one instead.


The vexed question of standby medication

Should you carry medication to treat your child if they get sick? It’s a difficult question.

“The challenge is differentiating the flu from a cold – or some other virus that causes flu-like symptoms,” Dr Bajrovic said.

“Flu usually begins with a sudden onset of fever, cough, aches and pains, and possibly a headache. The common cold usually starts with a sore throat and runny or congested nose.

“Without testing to confirm a child has flu it is difficult for a parent to know if and when to administer flu medication such as TamiFlu, which has to be taken within 48 hours of symptoms appearing to be effective and doesn’t work on colds. The result could be unnecessary treatment.”

However, Dr Bajrovic said standby treatment may be indicated for a child with a chronic disease.

“Children who are immune-suppressed, or who have diabetes, asthma or other chronic conditions are more likely to experience pneumonia and other serious complications from flu. Parents of these kids should discuss the merits of taking standby medication to treat flu with their travel doctor or paediatrician.”

Check your destination for flu

The USA’s CDC provides state-by-state flu activity reports.


United Kingdom

Europe (see News tab)

For more flu prevention advice, as well as information on vaccines that may be recommended for your next overseas trip, call Travelvax’s Australia’s advisory service on 1300 360 164 (toll-free for landlines).