Cardiovascular disease and diabetes can impact outcomes associated with the flu. But vaccination can improve those outcomes, said Dr. Donald Alcendor, an associate professor at the Center of AIDS Health Disparities Research Division at Meharry Medical College.
His presentation on the intersectionality of these conditions—and the importance of flu vaccination—took place during the recent Black Health Matters’ Fall Health Summit session titled “Maintaining Overall Diabetes, Cardiovascular Health and Influenza Risk.”
Dr. Alcendor began with a discussion on the health disparities associated with such chronic conditions as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer in the U.S. “Influenza can exacerbate those conditions, so when we look at ethnicity and race, we clearly see African American and Hispanic/Latinx communities are more likely to have issues with the flu.”
One important reason is that there’s less uptake of the flu vaccine among minority communities. When there’s less uptake, there will be greater incidence of morbidity and mortality. African Americans are least likely to get vaccinated and have greater death rates as a result when compared to other U.S. populations.
Dr. Alcendor shared statistics on the flu’s impact on several chronic diseases. Fifteen million people who have heart disease are 10 times more likely to have a heart attack in the first three days of contracting a flu infection. Thirty-one million people that have asthma or COPD put themselves at a greater risk for flu complications. And 31 million people that have diabetes have six times more risk of flu-related hospitalization.
Dr. Alcendor focused part of his presentation on diabetes in particular. He shared that if you have diabetes, you’re more likely to have life-threatening complications associated with the flu. That’s because people with diabetes are more susceptible to infections because of the increase in their blood sugar levels.
“So, it’s important if you have diabetes…to lower your risk if you come down with flu,” advised Dr. Alcendor. “To do this, there are many things that are important, and you need to stay healthy by monitoring your condition, taking your medication, exercising, and eating healthy.”
Flu vaccination is especially critical for those living with diabetes. In recent flu seasons, 30% of adults hospitalized with the flu were diabetics. Flu vaccination, however, can reduce hospitalizations for diabetics by 79%.
Dr. Alcendor then shed light on how the flu impacts those with heart disease. People with cardiovascular disease are more likely to get the flu than those that don’t have this condition. Viral infections like the flu can put added stress on the body and affect blood pressure, heart rate, and overall heart function.
The result could be serious, said Dr. Alcendor. People with heart disease are six times more likely to have a heart attack after coming down with the flu. The flu causes inflammation that can affect the heart, and severe inflammation could lead to a heart attack.
Flu vaccination is effective at reducing your risk of a heart attack by up to 45%, added Dr. Alcendor. “If you compare that to smoking cessation, cholesterol medication, and of course, high blood pressure medication, the flu vaccine decreases your risk at an even greater percentage than those interventions,” he said.
Dr. Alcendor shared additional statistics to underscore the point about the importance of flu vaccination. During the last flu season, there were 38 million flu illnesses, 400,000 hospitalizations, and 22,000 deaths associated with the flu. Flu vaccination could have reduced that risk to 7.5 million illnesses, 105,000 hospitalizations, and only 6,300 deaths.
“The impact of the flu vaccine is very real. It can help save lives!” emphasized Dr. Alcendor.
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