Students line up taking their shots

City sends out mobile clinic for vaccinations


Getting stuck with a needle - four times, no less, twice in each arm - was not Aminah Lambertis' idea of the proper way to spend a sunny summer afternoon. No, the pool at Baltimore's Druid Hill Park was where she'd rather have been.

But her mother was insistent that the 14-year-old get the vaccinations that she'd need for the coming school year, thus the four shots, one each for hepatitis A and B, meningitis and chicken pox, which were administered by a nurse in a public health vehicle that visits city neighborhoods.

"Just think of all the benefits you get from these shots," Earline Augustus-El said to her wincing daughter as the nurse plunged needle after needle into the teenager's flesh.

City health officials are urging parents like Augustus-El, who have children who will enter prekindergarten through ninth grade in the fall, to make sure the youngsters have been immunized against hepatitis B and chicken pox before the 2006-2007 school year begins.

State education officials have required younger children to have the two shots, as well as a host of others, for several years now, but this is the first year that students in grades five through nine must show proof of having been immunized against hepatitis B and chicken pox. Children who have already had the chicken pox must have a doctor verify the month and year that they were ill.

Baltimore officials estimate that there are about 10,000 children who will be affected by the new policy but add that a sizable number of those have probably already had the vaccinations. Still, they say there are thousands who will need to be immunized, either because they have not seen a doctor regularly or because their parents have lost their medical records or they are recent immigrants.

"We think that ensuring that kids are covered for chicken pox in middle schools is quite important because kids can get really sick from chicken pox," said city Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua Sharfstein. "It certainly makes public health sense."

To get the word out, the Health Department has launched an extensive public awareness campaign with radio spots, bus shelter ads and ticker-tape-style announcements at the bottom of movie screens at several local cinemas.

Health officials say it's important for older children who haven't had chicken pox to be vaccinated because if they contract the virus, they could become more seriously ill than younger children. The hepatitis B vaccine is also important because it protects children from contracting the virus, which can cause liver disease.

State health officials set a September deadline for the hepatitis B and chicken pox vaccines, but that date is expected to be pushed back to January, said Greg Reed, program manager for the Maryland Center for Immunization at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

In Baltimore, Dr. Anne Bailowitz, chief of the city's Bureau of Child Health and Immunization, is pushing to finish the vaccination program by the fall.

City school officials say they are also aiming to have all children in compliance with the new regulations by Sept. 16, or 20 days after the start of the new school year, as is required by city law, said Bryan Richardson, director of SchoolStat for Baltimore schools. "We're spending a lot of time now helping middle schools prepare for this," said Richardson, who explained that the new immunization rules will require school staffs to spend hours updating student records.

Bailowitz recently monitored the vaccination program by visiting the city's TIKE unit, a recreational vehicle that has been retrofitted to serve as a mobile health clinic.

The TIKE unit was dispatched to the lower parking lot of Mondawmin Mall one day last week, and during that time, a number of mothers and fathers brought their children to be vaccinated. Some parents said school officials told them their children had to get the hepatitis B and chicken pox vaccinations even after they had shown proof that their children had already had the shots. The apparent confusion over immunization requirements frustrated some parents who had taken time off work to bring their children to the TIKE unit.

Cora Brown, a 44-year-old West Baltimore resident, brought her son, Isaiah, 11, to get his vaccinations in anticipation of the start of classes at the KIPP Ujima Village Academy, a city charter school.

Parents who are unsure of their child's vaccination history can also access the city Health Department's immunization registry, which is regularly updated by doctors.

Isaiah was calm as registered nurse Rose Jefferson administered vaccines for meningitis and hepatitis A as well as a tetanus booster.

Jefferson had a harder time with Aminah, the teen who was dreaming of the swimming pool.

When Aminah's mother asked whether it would be OK for her daughter to go swimming after she'd been immunized, Jefferson said, "Absolutely."

To her anxious patient the nurse added, "I'm going to stick you, and then I'm going to help you out."

Aminah smiled. Her afternoon wouldn't be ruined after all.

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