August 4, 2011
When Christine Robinson's first child was born a month premature, the doctor recommended she have him vaccinated against rotavirus.
The Burlington mother willing paid more than $100 for the vaccine and four years later Liam has rarely had a stomach bug, unlike many of his day care mates. Robinson didn't get the vaccine for her younger son and thinks she notices a difference.
"He seems to come down with more and it lasts longer," she said, noting she wonders if she should have opted for the vaccine a second time. "I would highly consider it."
Parents who want to protect infants against rotavirus, which causes vomiting and diarrhea, will now have access to a free oral vaccine. The province is expanding its vaccine program starting this month. In addition to the rotavirus vaccine, patients will also be able to get a second dose of varicella vaccine, to protect against chickenpox. And adults between 18 and 64 can get a booster for whooping cough.
The package of vaccines, which could previously be purchased, will save a family $350 per child, said Dr. Arlene King, chief medical officer of health for the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care. The province invests about $1,800 in vaccines per child for a grand total of $150 million a year, she said.
"It's a significant investment in prevention," King said, noting the program helps people avoid illness and saves millions in health-care costs. "Vaccines are a public good."
Ontario is the first province to cover the rotavirus vaccine, which can only been given to young infants. The disease, which is commonly mistaken as stomach flu, put more than 1,500 children and infants in hospital during the past four years.
Dr. Ramsay MacNay, a pediatrician at McMaster Children's' Hospital, understands the risk professionally and personally. In the spring he helped treat a local outbreak of rotavirus. "It was super busy," he said, noting almost every child will get rotavirus before age five.
While for most kids it means recovering at home, others end up in hospital severely dehydrated. MacNay's own daughter once had to be admitted to hospital because of the disease, and his other daughter had to go to the emergency room twice because of rotavirus this spring.
"I wish I had done it for both girls," he said, noting "embarrassingly" the vaccine went below the family's radar. "I advocate for all vaccines."
MacNay suspects many parents will ask for the new vaccines, but others will decline, as they can do with any vaccine. He knows there are parents who worry about the side-effects of vaccines and don't feel they are necessary for some illnesses.
King acknowledged the nervousness, but stresses the province does extensive testing and tracking to ensure its program is safe. She encouraged parents to turn to reputable medical resources for more information on vaccines.
Vaccinations are hotly debated among parents, agrees Robinson. She knows there will be parents who will roll their eyes at hearing the province is adding more vaccines. She tries to stay out of the controversy and simply offers her own experience if friends ask.
"It's such a personal decision," Robinson said. "For our family, that's the decision we made."