Distrusting the Shot
African-Americans more likely to forgo flu immunizations; ad campaigns attempt to change their minds
Jimmie Inghram, a 70-year-old African-American, had his last flu shot 30 years ago. “It made me real sick,” he said as he played a video game at the Golden Agers Senior Activity Center.
Since then, Inghram has avoided the vaccine, as have many others at the center, even though free shots are offered periodically in the building.
As the country faces another flu season — heightened by fears of bird flu in Asia and Europe — health officials are grappling with a seemingly intractable problem: Many Americans, particularly Blacks, don’t trust annual flu shots.
In 2004, 45 percent of Blacks over the age of 65 — the age group most susceptible to the illness — received the shots, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That compares with 55 percent of Hispanics and 67 percent of Whites. About 53 percent of Asians got the shot, but public health officials consider that figure to be abnormally low, possibly due to vaccine-supply problems last year.
The disparities partly explain why African-Americans are 6 percent more likely than Whites to die from seasonal flu or pneumonia, a common flu complication, according to the CDC.
Unlike many health care disparities, cost is not the main problem. Flu shots run between $15 and $30, but most seniors are covered by Medicare.
Health officials say the problem is educating people about the benefits of flu shots and improving access to them.
Decades ago, adverse reactions, like those Inghram remembers, were common. Today’s shots are safer, although they can still cause sore arms and rare fevers.
“The myth that you can get flu from the flu vaccine continues to be alive and well” even among health care workers, says Dr. William M. Schaffner, chairman of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University.
A 2003 study published in the Journal of Health and Human Services Administration found that about 55 percent of Black seniors in Texas believe that flu shots cause or could cause flu, compared with 23 percent of elderly Whites.
There are other fears as well.
One oft-repeated incident that has fostered suspicion in the Black community is the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” which from 1932 to 1972 studied 399 poor Blacks in Alabama suffering from the sexually transmitted disease. Many of the men were allowed to suffer and die even after penicillin, which cures syphilis, became available in 1947.
“The sad part is that people are not convinced that it is a thing of the past,” says Dr. David Satcher, former U.S. surgeon general and now interim president of Morehouse School of Medicine.
Jonathan McGhee, 46, an African-American employee at the Golden Agers Center, adds: “A lot of things that happened to Black people in the past are in the folklore. … Everybody knows about the syphilis study.”
McGhee says the recent warnings from President Bush that bird flu could eventually mutate and cause a human pandemic only made him suspicious that the government was trying to distract people from problems in Iraq and New Orleans. “Bush is in trouble, and all of a sudden we have a pandemic flu threat,” he says.
— Associated Press
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