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Free Shot Program Attracts No Takers : Public health: Reluctant parents are cited as one reason that the child immunization effort fails to draw any clients on its first day.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An attempt to vaccinate toddlers in poor, hard-to-reach neighborhoods got off to a sluggish start Tuesday when not a single child showed up for shots.

A nurse waited, needles at the ready, at United Methodist Church in Santa Paula, and later at a tutoring center in Cabrillo Village in Saticoy, while an interpreter knocked on doors in the surrounding neighborhoods trying to drum up business.

The balky beginnings of the new, countywide immunization program illustrate the cultural hurdles that must be overcome in order to reach migrant workers and others most at risk of infectious diseases.

“The first day of the program is especially hard,” said Sue Hyatt, county immunization program director, who supervised leaflet distribution and other advertising efforts last week. “Word of the program hasn’t had time to spread.”

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She also suggested that the threat of rain had many strawberry field workers putting in extra hours to save the delicate crop, leaving little spare time to worry about vaccinations.

The clinic is part of Ventura County’s effort to immunize children following a nationwide outbreak of measles in the late 1980s.

After the measles epidemic, which caused 51 deaths across the state in 1990, the California Department of Health Services began more aggressively distributing free vaccines for measles, mumps, meningitis, diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough and polio.

And last week President Clinton announced a plan to spend an additional $300 million in an attempt to make free vaccines available to all children.

But in Ventura County free vaccines, which can cost up to $200 at a private doctor, are not the problem.

“We get plenty of free vaccines from the state,” Hyatt said. “We just need access to communities.”

About 59% of county children receive their full battery of shots by age 2, according to county records for 1992. But in some communities that percentage can dip to 10%, Hyatt said.

Fueled by an eight-year, $1-million federal grant, Hyatt hopes the outreach program, which supplements the county’s eight ongoing clinics, will up the county’s immunization rate to 90% by 2000.

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Tuesday’s clinics were the first in a series of one-day clinics to be held throughout the county in the coming year.

Getting into the neighborhoods isn’t just a problem in Ventura County. Community outreach is “the biggest barrier to vaccination, period,” said Dr. Loring Dales, chief of the immunization branch at California Department of Health Services.

“There’s no magic bullet to get parents to bring their kids,” Dales said. “Once an epidemic tapers off, the response tapers off.”

And getting reluctant parents to go to moving clinics like the one that began here Thursday is “especially difficult,” Dales said.

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“Even if you advertise it, there’s a high level of suspicion that needs to be overcome,” Dales said. “Ongoing clinics can take up to six months to kick in.”

Reaching those in need is Florhilda Villa’s frustrating task. Villa works as bilingual community interpreter for Ventura County’s immunization program.

“Many of the people here are from Mexico, where immunizations are not considered important,” Villa said. “You really need to go to each house and talk to the parents and explain to them how important it is.

“We need about 10 more people like me for this to really work,” Villa said.

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As Villa knocked on door after door in Santa Paula and Cabrillo Village, she encountered what she said were familiar responses.

Maria Gabriella Mares, a technician who was hurrying to work, said her 3-year-old daughter probably needs shots, but she didn’t have time to take her to the clinic.

One child explained that her parents were out working in the strawberry fields. Several mothers simply nodded, said thank you and shut the door.

None showed up at the clinic.

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“There’s a resistance to this sort of program,” Hyatt said. “If things continue this way, we’re going to have to think of some new approaches.”

A vaccine van that would travel from home to home and offer shots on site is one possibility, Hyatt said. “But that would cost extra money and we’d need more staff,” she said.

Going to Headstart sites and nabbing parents when they come to pick up their children is the more immediate plan of action, Hyatt said, adding that other plans are in the works.

“We’ll do what it takes,” Hyatt said. “We’re determined to make this happen.”

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FYI

Ventura County residents interested in finding out when vaccines will be available in their community may call 652-5918.


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