African Americans are more likely to become severely ill from the H1N1 flu than other groups. That was one of the key messages delivered at a forum held at Emmanuel Temple Church Wednesday.
What's Different about the H1N1 Flu
At the meeting, Multnomah County's Public Health Officer, Gary Oxman MD, delivered information and answered questions from community members about the flu.
"It hasn't become severe yet, but it's beginning to heat up," Oxman said. The H1N1 flu is becoming very active in Oregon now and 128 people have been hospitalized since the beginning of September. Five people have died, one in Multnomah County. That is not unusual.
What's different this year, Oxman said, is that both the H1N1 flu and seasonal flu are making people sick. And the H1N1 flu is more dangerous to younger people including young adults who normally don't get very sick from flu.
Figures from the Centers for Disease Control show that children and young adults are being hospitalized at higher rates than usual for flu season, and the death rate is higher too. Across the United States, 19 children died of flu during the week of Sept. 27 – Oct 3.
Every year between 200 and 300 people die from seasonal flu in the Portland Metro area. Most of the people who die are older people who suffer from other long-term illnesses. The H1N1 flu is no more severe than the regular flu, but those people who do become very sick are more likely to be young.
"If 200 or 300 people who are mostly children and young adults die, then that will feel very different," Oxman said.
African Americans Are at Higher Risk
African Americans as a group are more vulnerable, Oxman said. We know about health disparities that mean African Americans are more likely to suffer from the illnesses that make people more vulnerable to complications from flu. African Americans are also more likely to be young, and to lack access to medical care.
Most at risk are:
Young people up to age 25
Anyone with long-term health challenges such as: asthma, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer, and lowered immunity. And this is not a complete list.
"Asthma is two and a half times more prevalent in the African American community, for example, Oxman said. "And because differences in access to medical care it is more likely to be poorly managed asthma.
"All of those things make H1N1 influenza much more dangerous to the African American community.
You Can Prevent Infection
Oxman showed the audience a photograph of a person sneezing that included the cloud of droplets that are sneezed out into the surrounding air. Those infected droplets can be breathed in, by people in the same room. The droplets can also land on anything below the sneeze and other people can pick up the infection that way. The incubation period is one or two days.
That's why it is important to cover coughs and sneezes and for sick people to stay home for 24 hours after their fever has gone. To stay healthy, we should wash our hands often or use a liquid hand sanitizer.
One other line of defense is vaccination. Many people can take the vaccine through a nasal spray; others need the shot. Children from 6 months to 10 years old need two doses of the H1N1 vaccine, but anyone older just needs one dose. Add to that one seasonal flu shot.
"I'm a fan of vaccines," Oxman said. "I'm not a complete fan. There are issues, but there is a new vaccine out. It's good. It works."
African Americans Have Concerns about Vaccination
Studies show African Americans are more wary of vaccines than either Whites or Latinos, Oxman said. Just 30 percent say they will get the vaccine compared to 60 percent of whites and about the same number of Latinos.
Joyce Harris, president of the African American Coalition, said previous ill treatment at the hands of the medical community has left many African Americans mistrustful of public health advice.
"People have either dug their heels in and said I'm not getting that vaccine because I remember Tuskegee – or they think the vaccine is not safe," she said. "So we really have to talk to people and say this really is a life or death issue."
Dr Oxman said he understood that African Americans had reasons to be suspicious of health advice. He acknowledged that, in 1976 the government had been too hasty with a poorly tested vaccine. That vaccine was very crude compared to today's vaccines, he said. And both this year's seasonal flu vaccine and the H1N1 vaccine are safe and effective. The decision to make the H1N1 vaccine was fast-tracked and the delivery was fast-tracked, he said, but the vaccine itself has been made in exactly the same way as the regular flu vaccine.
"The influenza vaccine over the last 15-20 years has proved itself to be very safe," he said. We believe it's as safe as all those vaccines."
Should You and Your Family Get the Vaccine?
Public health officials say the vaccine is the only way to be sure you won't get the flu. Babies under six months old are too young to be vaccinated. But everyone else can be vaccinated.
Supplies are too low to vaccinate everyone, however, so the first people to get the vaccine should be those in high risk-groups:
Anyone who cares for a baby under 6 months old
Everyone from 6 months to 24 years old.
Adults from 25-64 who have a chronic medical condition.
Where Can You Get Vaccinated?
The vaccine is free and will be available at your regular doctor's office and at specially organized health events.
Oct. 17 African American Health Coalition Annual Wellness Village: 9:30 a.m .– 3 p.m .at The Blazer Boys and Girls Club 5250 NE Martin Luther King Blvd. Visit the AAHC Website to register.
Oct. 24 African American Health Coalition Flu Clinic, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m .Emmanuel Temple Church, 1033 N. Sumner
Nov. 14 African American Health Coalition Flu Clinic, 10 a.m .– 2 p.m. Emmanuel Temple Church, 1033 N. Sumner