Oak Park free clinic pushes back-to-school vaccinations

More than two dozen parents were already lined up at an Oak Park health clinic by 9 a.m. Thursday, holding piles of immunization records with the hope of getting their children vaccinated before school begins next week.

Many of them were prompted by the passage of Senate Bill 277, the state law mandating that all public and private school students be up to date on required vaccines against diseases such as meningitis, measles, mumps and rubella. Under the law, effective last month, parents who oppose vaccinations for religious or personal reasons can no longer submit an exemption form signed by a physician.

Khawlah Alaudi a Sacramento seventh-grader, learned about the new law the hard way when she showed up for her first day at Aspire Alexander Twilight College Preparatory Academy last week and was sent home because her vaccinations were not up to date.

She was among the first in line Thursday with her uncle Sabo Garba.

“She’s already missed four days,” Garba said. “They won’t let you in if you don’t have your shots.”

This month, Sacramento City Councilman Jay Schenirer is teaming up with Sutter Health, the UC Davis Health System and the WellSpace clinic in Oak Park to help families get on the vaccination wagon. School officials in Oak Park reported two weeks ago that 900 students on file didn’t have current vaccinations, Schenirer said. Seeing the need, he launched a free-immunization clinic through his wellness initiative, WayUp Sacramento.

The response to that clinic was immediate. On Thursday, staff members gave children free shots and plan to offer more from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. next Tuesday.

“If they can’t go to school, they can’t learn,” Schenirer said. “And if they’re not learning, they’re not going to be successful.”

Many of the hundreds of parents at the clinic said they had simply forgotten to vaccinate their children until their children’s schools reminded them by phone. Others said they had tried to get their children shots at doctors’ offices but were told booking an appointment would take months.

Making an appointment is a real challenge for families with Medi-Cal, said Dr. Francisco Aguirre, chief medical officer for WellSpace Health. Often, a free immunization clinic is their best opportunity.

Jennifer Harris, who recently moved to Fair Oaks from St. Louis, said she brought three of her children down to Oak Park for shots because she hadn’t yet found a doctor in town.

“I’m a paranoid parent with a germophobe problem,” Harris said. “I’m afraid of my children hanging around with children who don’t have any shots. I don’t like that.”

SB 277 kicked up controversy and heated debate while under consideration by the state Legislature, mostly from a small but vocal group of parents who contended that vaccines can cause autism or other illnesses. Health organizations and councils have disputed those charges.

Still, the number of personal exemptions filed by parents in California has remained high, especially in affluent suburban communities. Pro-vaccination families blamed such anti-vaccination attitudes when dozens of children came down with measles after visiting Disneyland last year.

Aguirre said he still sees vaccine-wary parents every day despite the state law going into effect.

“We try to allay their fears and help them make a good decision,” he said. “This law that was passed forces their hand.”

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola