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A Final Back-to-School Task: Immunizations
Dozens of Children Get Free Shots in Program Sponsored by City and Hospital

By Yolanda Woodlee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 27, 2006

Linda Tyler was relieved when she saw on television that she could get free immunizations for her 3-year-old granddaughter Kapriah White, whom she wants to enroll in preschool.

"If I didn't know about this today, I don't know what I would have done," said Tyler, who unexpectedly became Kapriah's caretaker in May. She also has taken care of the little girl's 7-year-old sister, Kaprise, since December. "They kept saying the shots are a must for them to get back in school. I didn't have the money and no benefits."

Kapriah was one of 142 children who were vaccinated yesterday at the It's Wise to Immunize Family Fun Day at a recently built community center in Southeast Washington. An additional 144, including her sister, were told that they did not need shots. Instead of leaving with Band-Aids and tears, they took home new backpacks filled with books, crayons and markers.

The program, in its 13th year, was sponsored by the D.C. Department of Health and the Children's National Medical Center. The children were given vaccinations against diseases such as chickenpox, hepatitis B, polio, measles, mumps and whooping cough.

The immunizations are required by law before enrolling children in D.C. public schools, where classes start tomorrow. Children who do not have up-to-date immunizations will not be allowed to attend.

D.C. Attorney General Robert J. Spagnoletti said last week that parents and guardians who do not get their children enrolled in school and immunized can be prosecuted. Last school year, the attorney general's office filed charges against 67 parents who failed to have their children immunized.

"The goal is to make sure kids get off to a healthy start for the new school year," Spagnoletti said. "But those who refuse to get their kids immunized will face criminal sanctions."

Mark Weissman, medical director of the Children's National Health Network, said the number of children getting vaccinations at the last minute has been dropping. The District is ahead of Maryland and Virginia in tracking immunization records because of a new registry that collects data on children's shots.

Weissman said that only 40 percent of the District's 60,000 school-age children had complete immunization records in 2001 but by last year the figure had risen to 97 percent. He credits a school nurses program, which is managed by Children's Hospital, for improving the rate by monitoring children's vaccinations.

"That's a huge public health success," Weissman said. "That's stunning."

D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the council's Health Committee, stopped by the makeshift immunization clinic and touted the city's preschool immunization program. A pink-and-beige-striped truck with a picture of a smiling teddy bear sat in the parking lot of the community center, called THEARC.

Mr. Bear's Express, the result of an initiative pushed by Catania, visits day-care centers, Head Start programs and churches to connect children younger than 4 to health care.

The city helped launch the health-care truck, which was unveiled in May, with $500,000 to equip and operate it. Catania said $300,000 is in the budget for next fiscal year to maintain the truck.

"It's not a perfect solution, but it's a good first step," Catania said as families stood in line to get their children vaccinated. "For these kids, there was no place for them to go before."

For parents who missed yesterday's event, free immunizations are still available. A hotline in which a registered nurse can answer questions is at 202-884-5387.

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