WASHINGTON (NNPA) - Government officials warn that the H1N1 flu virus is spreading rapidly and that the Black community may have a higher rate of existing health conditions that could make the illness a serious threat.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Dr. Anne Schuchat of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention detailed the launch of a vaccine program for the flu and the White House Administration's outreach efforts within the African-American community in a conference call with reporters that serve Black markets.
"Oct. 4 officially began the flu season," Sebelius said, "We do know that H1N1 is different than other flus. Already we've had as much flu activity as we had at the height of past flu seasons and 98 percent of current cases are H1N1."
While Blacks are no more susceptible to H1N1 than the rest of the population, they do have a higher rate of existing health conditions that may make the flu a more serious threat.
"We have an independent advisory committee on immunization that looks at the flu every year and figure out who should get vaccinated first," said Sebelius. "[Their decision is] mostly based on who is likely to get seriously ill from the flu, so folks with underlining health conditions are definitely a group of priority. And communities of color have higher rates of chronic illness such as asthma, heart disease and diabetes."
The secretary said authorities expect a long flu season this year, and do not anticipate it dying down anytime soon.
H1N1 is widespread in 27 states, and has reached regional status as an illness, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's chief health officer for the flu outbreak, Dr. Anne Schuchat.
"We are taking this very seriously…about 36,000 people die each year from the seasonal flu," she said. "Three areas have been very important to us in planning this immunization effort; safety of the vaccine is a top priority and no short-cuts have been taken, access is another area and that's why we've provided resources to states and cities to be able to offer the vaccine. The last is cost, we don't want finances to be a barrier for anyone wanting to be vaccinated."
Schuchat said the flu poses a risk on many college campuses this fall, both at predominately White schools as well as Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
"As a flu expert, I would think this virus is going to be common on many campuses if it isn't already common," Schuchat said. "There's nothing about risk of disease that differs, or about behaviors that I think would be greatly different [between the two types of schools]. We really hope that the vaccine will be available to all communities serving our college campuses. We know that younger people across campuses are at higher risk of getting the flu, fortunately they are also at a much lower rate of being hospitalized than middle-aged people."
For more information on H1N1 symptoms and prevention, visit www.flu.gov
Local flu news here.