AS her two-year-old daughter lay helpless in a hospital bed hooked up to bleeping machines, Alison Flowers was desperate to find out what was wrong with her youngest child.
Just days earlier, little Millie had been happily enjoying a family holiday. Without warning, she was struck down by a mystery illness which brought them back home to Ratho days early and then to the hospital ward.
Her lively disposition had given way to lethargy, her usually inquisitive and independent character reduced to a clingy toddler.
It had doctors at the Sick Kids baffled as they performed test after test to ascertain what was at the root of her sickness.
“It was very distressing not knowing what it was or if it was going to lead to something else,” says Alison, 35. “There were all the monitors beeping all the time if her levels of oxygen went down too much. Seeing her looking unwell with all the tubes coming out is never good.
“She was obviously unwell and didn’t feel well but it’s almost as distressing for the parent as there’s nothing you can do about it and you are having to watch your child suffer.”
The diagnosis when it came could not have been more surprising. It wasn’t meningitis – a disease often making the headlines for being notoriously difficult to diagnose – it was flu.
“I was very surprised to find out it was flu. You don’t expect it at all. We had been on the ward two days and then quickly to an isolation room,” adds Alison.
Millie spent three nights in hospital after catching the virus which was complicated by secondary pneumonia. The toddler had been ill the previous year with an adenovirus infection, an illness of the respiratory system, which caused her to contract the pneumonia then as well.
She had made a full recovery and given her parents little cause for concern until the latest setback in March this year.
Even then, human resources consultant Alison says there were no instant alarm bells ringing.
“She just wasn’t herself, she was off her food, she was really clingy, just wanting cuddles and things but didn’t seem that unwell really.
“Then quite quickly she just went downhill again and she was coughing a lot, couldn’t settle properly at night because of the cough and she had a temperature.
“By the time we got home we had to take her to the Sick Children’s [hospital]. They did her saturation levels, looking at her breathing, and took another X-ray and again it had gone into this secondary bacterial infection.
“At the time they did some tests to see what it was and it was only 48 hours after that it came back that it was flu.
“Having the flu virus actually caused her to become more unwell with a secondary infection. She was so much more susceptible because the flu had weakened her so much.
“The tests had come back and she had probably only got secondary pneumonia because of the flu virus.
“We were very surprised. Our other daughter, Isobel, had been a little unwell but she’s a couple of years older and tends to cope with these things, and both my husband and I were fine so we never suspected it was that.”
After her hospital stay, Millie was put on antibiotics for a month before being given a clean bill of health.
This year she and husband Dan have had both the girls vaccinated and are urging other parents of young children to do the same in the run up to Christmas.
Her plea comes as new figures reveal that more than half – 54.6 per cent – of all children aged two and three years of age in Scotland have still to take up the offer to get protected against flu.
The Scottish Government extended its seasonal flu programme to include all two and three-year-old children when it launched its new campaign in October this year.
The vaccine comes in the form of a painless nasal spray and is the recommended way of protecting children from contracting the infection.
“You just don’t know how flu will affect your children, and it can often be a great deal more harmful to youngsters than adults as they haven’t built up their immunity.
“Flu caused Millie to be severely ill and I would never want her to go through such intense pain and distress again. I ensured that she received her vaccination as soon as possible this year and she is now perfectly healthy. We are able to enjoy the Christmas festivities as a family.”
The focus on flu immunisation has previously been on encouraging the elderly, or people with underlying health conditions, to sign up for the winter jab.
However, Scotland’s chief medical officer, Sir Harry Burns, says it is equally important for youngsters to be protected.
“Flu strikes suddenly and it’s important for both adults and children to be prepared. The extension of the flu vaccination programme will not only protect children but it will also help prevent the spread of the flu virus,” he says.
“Every year we see examples of how devastating flu can be for children, particularly the youngest ones who have little immunity to the infection. In fact, youngsters are two to three times as likely to be ill with flu than adults.
“The vaccine that will be used for most children is called Fluenz and is administered as a nasal spray rather than an injection.
“The flu vaccine only takes a few minutes, but will offer protection for around 12 months.
“Before we move any deeper into winter, I encourage all parents to take their toddler for the flu vaccination”
The programme will be rolled out to all two to 17-year-olds over the next few years.
Around 100,000 children from a selection of primary schools in every health board area will also take part in a pilot programme over 2013-14.
Dr Janet Stevenson, consultant in public health medicine at NHS Lothian, says the immunisation programme for nursery age children is particularly vital to halt the spread.
She says: “Flu should be taken seriously in children – it’s not the same as the common cold and the virus can have a severe devastating effect. I would encourage parents to take the opportunity to protect their toddler from flu and to help reduce the spread of the virus within families and communities.
“Anyone who hasn’t yet had their child aged two to three years old vaccinated should contact their GP to make an appointment.”