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Nannies who get flu shots may have an edge in the job market

About three months ago, Samantha Slattery approached her nanny about getting the H1N1 flu vaccine. Slattery, 33, of Topanga, had a 5-month-old daughter and 2-year-old son. The baby was too little to be vaccinated, and Slattery wanted to avoid vaccinating her son.

But nanny Blanca Duarte refused. Duarte, 47, said she was afraid the vaccine would make her sick; she had gotten ill after a flu vaccination years before.

“For three weeks I could not work,” Duarte said. “After that, I said no more.”

She also worried about side effects. She said her teenage daughter had heard rumors at Crenshaw High that the vaccine makes you sterile. And she said her family doctor did not even have the vaccine in stock.

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For many parents and caregivers, reaching agreement about flu vaccines has proved impossible, even amid initial fears that the H1N1 pandemic could prove more dangerous than seasonal flu.

New parents are particularly concerned, because babies younger than 6 months -- too young for vaccination -- are considered among those most at risk for serious complications.

This month is a peak hiring season for nannies nationwide as families return from holiday vacations and new mothers go back to work, according to officials from major nanny placement agencies.

Some nannies are trying to get an edge in the tough economy by advertising themselves as having received the H1N1 vaccine. But many others refuse vaccinations, parents and doctors say, because they are concerned about rumored side effects or unable to get access to the vaccine because of shortages.

In recent weeks, online message boards have filled as parents struggle to persuade nannies to be vaccinated, fire nannies who refuse and screen new applicants.

“Ugh! I am so frustrated right now that I could explode,” the mother of a premature baby girl wrote on Babycentercommunity.com. “I have been interviewing potential nannies for the past several weeks. I finally found one that I was feeling confident that I would like to hire, I called to get more info for reference check and also I had forgot to ask if they were OK with getting both flu and swine vaccine this year. The response was no.”

“I can’t make her do it,” another parent wrote on Urbanbaby.com. “I offered to pay. If she doesn’t want to, she doesn’t want to.”

Mothers in West Los Angeles and New York City are calling agencies to ask how to broach the subject of vaccination with their nannies, said Claudia Kahn, owner and founder of the Help Company in Santa Monica, which serves families in both Los Angeles and New York.

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“It’s a very touchy discussion, to ask people to get vaccinated,” Kahn said. “There’s a fine line about medical things, and people are questioning whether they’re allowed to ask, if it’s prying into their health background.”

Slattery, a music event coordinator, had heard about other families requiring nannies to get vaccinated and show proof. Instead, Slattery was vaccinated, as were her son and her husband, a visual effects supervisor for movies that have included “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”

“I didn’t want to force my nanny,” Slattery said. “It’s a personal choice. I wasn’t going to get heavy-handed about it.”

Relationships between mothers and nannies can be fraught with unspoken tension about terms of employment and parenting, said Lindsay Heller, a psychologist and former nanny.

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Heller mediates between nannies and parents at her Beverly Hills consulting business, the Nanny Doctor.

The H1N1 flu scare exposed rifts in some families, she said, if the “power of privilege” initially allowed parents to get the vaccine through their doctors while many nannies had a harder time finding it for their families.

In other cases, Heller said, she heard from nannies who said they worried vaccines could make them sick or lead to autism in their children.

At QueensCare Family Clinic in Hollywood, many patients ask Dr. Guillermo Diaz whether he and his children have been vaccinated. The pediatrician and father of two tells them his family members are all vaccinated -- as is his nanny.

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Diaz said that about half of his Latino patients have refused the vaccine but that the other half “are proponents.”

“I don’t think it’s a matter of culture so much as whether they are believing the rumors and bad reports,” Diaz said. “Nannies have networks and speak among them, so if one nanny says no and it spreads, then it’s all over.”

California legal experts say they have been fielding calls from anxious parents and agencies dealing with reluctant nannies.

“What I’m hearing from families is there does seem to be some push-back from nannies about getting the shot,” said Bob King, lawyer and founder of Irvine-based Legally Nanny, which provides legal advice to families and nanny agencies. “It’s largely driven by fear from the nannies.”

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Although it is a violation of federal antidiscrimination law for agencies to screen nannies based on their medical histories, including vaccinations, it is not illegal for parents to screen or fire nannies for refusing to get vaccinated, King said.

California and Los Angeles County health officials do not mandate or monitor whether nannies, baby-sitters or day-care providers get vaccinated for H1N1 flu, although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that caregivers of babies younger than 6 months old be inoculated.

Kahn, who has been in the nanny business for 28 years, said she assures mothers that they can ask nannies to get vaccinated, and she said most mothers succeed.

“Most of them have a pretty close relationship with their nanny,” she said.

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Some parents have paid for nannies’ shots, driven them to their own doctor’s offices or given them paid time off to get vaccinated, Kahn said.

“It’s all about respect,” Kahn said. “You want to keep your employees happy.”

Molly Morales, 34, took nanny Delila Morales, no relation, with her to a county-sponsored H1N1 flu vaccination clinic in Santa Clarita last month. They camped out in line with her 2-month-old son Hayden and 3-year-old daughter Bailey.

“She was fine with it,” said Morales, a marketing director, as the nanny nodded. “Just to keep everybody healthy in the house.”

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When people in the household do fall ill, new concerns arise.

“The kids are getting sick, so it’s like what do you do with your nanny, do you expose her? That’s the dilemma,” Kahn said.

Kahn has witnessed a range of behavior from parents. She said one family did not get vaccinated or ask their nanny to do so, only to have their baby get the flu during a vacation. Kahn said the nanny, who eventually caught the flu too, had to stay with the ill child while the parents continued their trip.

But another client, whom Kahn described as a high-ranking television executive, gave her nanny time off when her 5-year-old daughter got the flu rather than expose the nanny to the virus. Instead the mother stayed home to care for her daughter, who ended up needing to be hospitalized before recovering.

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In some cases, parents and nannies end up in agreement.

Before this fall, Glendale nanny Esther Avalos had never gotten a flu vaccine, and she did not plan to do so this fall. Then her employer explained the danger of catching the virus.

“I realized I’m putting my kids and my work kids at risk,” said Avalos, 33, who later got herself and her two young daughters vaccinated for seasonal flu and accompanied her employer’s children to a county-sponsored H1N1 flu clinic. “For my boss, it’s real important. She educated me.”

molly.hennessy-fiske

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@latimes.com


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