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Despite warnings, many in the District fear, decline to get H1N1 vaccine

"The vaccine fell out of the sky," says Queen McKnight, a pregnant psychology student who isn't getting the shot. (Gerald Martineau/the Washington Post)
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Her fix: "I stay real close to hand sanitizer."

Jennifer Jones, 28, is also passing on the vaccine for her 7-month-old. Her mom was rushed to the emergency room and had to get a tracheotomy after an allergic reaction to blood pressure medication. Jones's son was already getting a series of other vaccinations. "As soon as he gets home, I'm going to hold him and watch him and watch him to see how he reacts," she said. "It's first-time-parent jitters."

The reaction has surprised some who have worked in the community for years. "I actually thought people were really going to be coming in," said Rachel Harris, a nurse at the Chartered Family Health Center.

Harris lives in Fairfax County, where officials on Saturday hope to blow through a stock of about 10,000 doses in a one-day vaccination blitz at the County Government Center targeting children 6 to 36 months old and pregnant women. Meanwhile, Harris's clinic received 200 doses a week ago. Doctors there are responsible for 6,000 children, but there have been just 25 takers so far, despite a series of robo-calls and personal appeals to clients.

Harris said she hears history in some of the resistance.

"A lot of the older generation is talking about Tuskegee," she said, referring to a U.S. government experiment on poor black men that began in the 1930s in Alabama. Their syphilis wasn't treated once a cure existed, and researchers studied how the men suffered. "I said, 'Yes, you have to be mindful, but we've come a long way.'

"I think it's just a thing of not knowing. There's a lot of information out there," Harris said. "But what information should I focus on?"

Others say the mass clinics the District is running throughout the city lack the intimacy of a doctor's office, a key factor in nudging people to vaccinate.

"I wouldn't go to a clinic for a shot," said Asek Makia, an allergist who consults at Chartered Family in the District and also sees patients in Prince George's County. Patients trust "people they've been dealing with for years," he said.

Doctors offices are also getting the vaccine, but distribution remains spotty and opaque.

"In the Maryland suburbs, they are more ready to accept it," Makia said. "They actually ask for it."

Some at the Minnesota Avenue clinic were open to it.

Ari Harris is pregnant and said she didn't know that she could be immunized or that she is one of the top priorities for federal health officials. She said she didn't think H1N1 was widespread locally until last week, when she heard about a cousin's friends coming down with it. "I don't want to be sick with that," she said. But she worries that she won't find time to get vaccinated.

Back beside Kelly Miller Middle School, at the red-brick Lincoln Heights public housing project, those within easy walking distance of the District clinic site were mixed on the idea of vaccinations.

"It's a hustle," said Scott Johnson, 29, a home-improvement contractor who said he won't take his kids, age 2 and 9, to be vaccinated.

Donna Coleman showed up at the clinic a few minutes late after hundreds had made it through. She said she plans to take her 15-year-old daughter back.

"They're saying this flu is not something you're supposed to play with," Coleman said.


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