Warning: The Flu Is Not Just a Bad Cold

Nearly 50,000 people die each year from flu

It’s National Influenza Vaccination Week. Research from years past shows people tend to get a flu shot early in the season, with a serious drop in vaccination activity after the end of November. But the flu doesn’t take a holiday break; as long as the virus is still spreading, it can still cause illness.
Black Health Matters spoke with pediatrician Winston Price, M.D., about the importance of getting flu vaccines.
To many people the flu just seems like a really bad cold. Why is this a dangerous way to think?
Winston Price: It’s troublesome because of the number of individuals with chronic risk factors and the number of folks who can become seriously ill with the flu. We have almost 2,000 deaths each year among children and close to 50,000 deaths among adults. The flu causes 300,000 hospitalizations each year in the United States, with significant costs to the health-care system.
Which populations are most at risk?
Individuals with diabetes, heart disease, respiratory illnesses or malignancies. People who smoke. People who are obese. People who live in environments where there is congestion—in terms of the number of people living in a particular household. People with no health insurance or inadequate insurance, which is particularly the case among African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans.
Children younger than six months are susceptible. We don’t have a flu vaccine for that age. The elderly are susceptible, partly because of other chronic illnesses and partly because the immune system begins to wane as we advance in years. Respiratory systems usually are compromised because of changes as we age. A mild flu can put an elderly person at greater risk.
That’s why getting the flu shot is so important….
The emphasis is on making sure we reduce the burden of flu in the general population. We encourage pregnant women to receive flu vaccine to provide maximum protection in their households. We encourage moms to breastfeed to transfer immunity to their babies. When people get the flu vaccine, they’re not only protecting themselves and their families, but also the community and any susceptible people they may come in contact with.
So why do so many people still avoid the vaccine?
We’re getting the message across—about the importance—but there’s a lot of old wives’ tales out there with respect to influenza.
What are some of those old wives’ tales?
The flu shot is going to give you the flu. That’s the most common, particularly in the inner city and rural communities—areas with lower health literacy. Another is that people die from getting the vaccine. If one member of a large family had a bad effect after getting the vaccine—whether or not that bad effect was related to the vaccine—it affects how the entire family thinks. They say, “Uncle Charlie died 10 years ago after getting the flu shot; I’m not giving my children the vaccine.”
A small subset of the population is against vaccines in general. They believe vaccines have evil toxins in them or are part of a conspiracy.
The naysayers are good about getting their message out about the potential deaths. We have a hard time breaking the myths and talking about the millions of people we’ve been able to prevent from serious death.
So the message is that the flu is serious, and people should get the vaccine. Any other takeaways we should share?
In addition to getting the shot, people should practice good nutrition and cleanliness. Wash their hands. Keep tables and counter tops clean. Make sure that individuals who do have the flu wear face masks to keep it from spreading.
The vaccine is readily available in most of the chain pharmacies. It’s never too late to get the vaccine; the season runs from late August until April. Just because you got the flu once doesn’t mean you’re protected from other strains. Repeat every year.

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