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The H1N1 dilemma: Parents agonize over vaccinating kids

Who's winning the H1N1 battle: Canada or the U.S.? How are athletes dealing with swine flu? Should I vaccinate my child? Every one has questions when it comes to this strain of influenza.

During commercials breaks in Survivor last Thursday night, Danielle Donders was anxiously hashing out the risks with her husband, Mark Renaud, drifting from "maybe" to "yes" to "maybe" again. By Monday, however, the numbing statistics had morphed into enough real cases that Ms. Donders's mind was made up. Yesterday, the Barrhaven, Ont., mother packed up snacks and the portable DVD player and went to stand in line with her three young children to get them the H1N1 vaccine.

"It was really the personal stories that decided things, and the fact that I know someone who went to a funeral for a little girl this week," she says, referring to 10-year-old Vanetia Warner, who died of the flu in an Ottawa hospital. "Picturing my not-quite two-year-old on a respirator was enough to do it for me."

Across the country, as clinics finally launch Canada's vaccination program, parents are agonizing over whether to give their children the needle. Fretting over the flu has surely become as pandemic as the virus itself, with parents reporting feeling both swamped by information and confused on facts.

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A survey released Monday found that opposition to the vaccine has grown sharply - with 51 per cent of Canadians saying they don't plan on rolling up their sleeves for it. And while the death of two otherwise healthy children this week may have clarified the debate for some parents - heightening the "towering fear of 'what ifs,'" as Ms. Donders put it - in many households the conversation continues. In most cases, it is the mom carrying the weight of the final say.

"Everybody's in such a state about it," says Kerry Sauriol, a full-time Vancouver mother with three children under 7. "There's so much confusion out there. It's just crazy."

Over breakfast and between bedtime responsibilities, Ms. Sauriol and her husband, Patrick, have had random exchanges about the vaccine - with Mr. Sauriol's initial reaction being opposed, and his wife wanting to research it more. But, after news reached his workplace that Evan Frustaglio, a 13-year-old Toronto hockey player, had died from flu complications, he moved closer to the pro-vaccine camp.

"I am trying to get as much information as possible and not freak out," Mr. Sauriol says. "Sure, you can say the numbers are against that happening [to your child] but you can still put yourself in that father's shoes."

Among Ms. Sauriol's friends - and from what she's read on online discussion forums - "there seems to be a mix of mass panic and total indifference," she says.

In Comox, B.C., for instance, Karen MacKinnon and her husband have decided they don't want the vaccine for the daughters in their blended family - and both of their ex-spouses agreed. "You make the decision you can best live with," says Ms. MacKinnon, who noted that even with two children with underlying health problems, they decided to avoid the vaccine because of worries it may not be safe. Instead, the couple keep the girls home when they are tired, get them to bed earlier, and concentrate on healthy eating habits. "We'll watch it," she says, of the flu's progression. "But I am not going to be suddenly fearful."

Among parents who have decided against the vaccine - or are leaning that way - this is a common theme: a sense that the flu risk has been exaggerated, and rushing into line for a needle is a panicked response.

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"I think it's just mushroomed into a big issue," says Kami Lahti, a chartered accountant in Regina with two sons, 5 and 7. Her continued uncertainty about the vaccine, she says, determined her choice. "We've all been very undecided: should I, or shouldn't I? If it's that questionable, my answer is no."

But as Ms. Donders prepared to stand in line for hours yesterday, she suggested that news of children falling dangerously - and even fatally - ill was already shifting opinion in favour of the vaccine among her friends and the moms who follow her blog, Postcards from the Mothership. "I can see the tide slowly turning," she said.

And Ms. Sauriol has booked an appointment with her family doctor for an expert opinion. For now, she says, "I am practically hosing the kids down with Purell every day."

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About the Author

Erin Anderssen writes about mental health, social policy and family issues. More

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