It’s flu season.
The highly contagious flu – aka influenza – packs a punch that can be deadly. And health advocates are advising at-risk populations, among them Native Americans and Alaska Natives, to get vaccinated.
“Flu season typically peaks between December and February but significant activity can occur as late as May,” according to Assistant U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Anne Schuchat, who directs the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. “We are encouraging people who have not yet been vaccinated this season to get vaccinated now.”
The week of December 7-13, the CDC’s National Influenza Vaccination Disparities Partnership hosted events in several U.S. cities to make vaccinations available to people who are underinsured or uninsured, and to honor program partners for reaching vaccination milestones.
The CDC and its partners have administered more than 400,000 flu vaccinations across the United States since the partnership’s inception in 2010, according to Blake Harper of Kauffman & Associates, a Native woman-owned public health firm that coordinates the CDC’s vaccination awareness campaign among Native Americans and Alaska Natives.
“To date, we have connected with over 200 American Indian/Alaska Native partners to promote flu [vaccination] … [and] to assist clinics in their flu [vaccination] promotion events,” Harper said.
On December 12 at the St. Vincent de Paul Food Bank in the Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle, Mayor Ed Murray presented a National Influenza Vaccination Week proclamation and the CDC recognized its 12 program partners that worked to make vaccinations available in that city, particularly in ethnic communities. Partners include the National Asian Pacific Center on Aging, El Centro de la Raza, the Mexican Consulate, and the Seattle Indian Health Board.
The Seattle Indian Health Board was recognized for administering 1,400 vaccinations since September.
On December 13 at the Denver Indian Center in Denver, Colorado, Mayor Michael B. Hancock presented a proclamation and the CDC recognized its program partners there: the Denver Indian Center, Inc., Denver Indian Health and Family Services, Denver Indian Family Resource Center, Native American Cancer Research Corporation, Denver American Indian Commission, and the National Native American AIDS Prevention Center.
Jingle dancers, fancy dancers, and men’s traditional dancers performed, and 40 people were vaccinated at the event, Harper said. Among those to get vaccinated: Darius Lee Smith, Navajo, director of the City of Denver Anti-Discrimination Office and adjunct instructor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Denver.
While the number of vaccinations in Denver was lower than organizers had hoped, overall it was “a very successful day for the CDC,” Harper said.
Did he get vaccinated this season? “I have, yes,” said Harper, who has a master’s degree in public health. “I got mine in September.”
‘A triumph of public health’
As with many vaccines, flu vaccine has its skeptics who question its effectiveness or safety.
But in a column on Slate.com, pediatric cardiologist and health writer Darshak Sanghavi called flu-control programs “a triumph of public health.”
“What critics of flu-control policies don’t get is that any global effort to stop an infection always goes through a process in which doctors learn more over successive battles and refine their strategies. That is exactly what is now happening in the battle against flu,” Sanghavi wrote. “This is the scientific process in action.”
The influenza virus mutates yearly, Sanghavi wrote, “so the flu’s impact varies hugely year by year … Vaccine makers have to guess what strains of the flu will predominate, so the vaccine may prevent anywhere from 0 to 50 percent of the flu in a bad-guess year and 70 to 90 percent in a good-guess year.”
So, as the flu virus evolves, so does flu vaccine. Sanghavi writes that there’s a costly risk in abandoning vaccine.
Japan was at one time the only industrialized country to have mandatory universal flu vaccine of children, Sanghavi writes. Largely because of skepticism, Japan’s program was repealed in 1994.
“The result? … Flu deaths rose by 40,000 per year -- almost as many people as died immediately from the atomic bomb in Hiroshima.”
In contrast, in the United States during the 2011-12 flu season, flu vaccination was associated with a 71 percent reduction in flu-related hospitalizations among adults of all ages and a 77 percent reduction among adults 50 years of age and older, according to the CDC.
Studies have shown that people who get vaccinated will have fewer flu illnesses and doctors' visits and miss less work because of flu, according to the CDC. “A flu vaccine can prevent you from spreading the virus to your loved ones, and can help protect your community from influenza,” the CDC reported.
Since influenza viruses are always changing and immunity wanes over time, it is important to get a flu vaccine every season, according to the CDC.
Indigenous people are at higher risk
For millions of people every season, the flu can mean a fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle aches, fatigue, and days spent in bed.
“However, you may not realize that more than 200,000 people are hospitalized in the United States from flu complications each year,” according to Harper. “Over a period of 30 years, between 1976 and 2006, estimates of yearly flu-associated deaths in the United States range from a low of about 3,000 to a high of about 49,000 people during the most severe season.”
Native Americans and Alaska Natives are at higher risk for complications from the flu, according to the CDC.
“Compared to the general U.S. population, American Indians and Alaska Natives are more likely to be hospitalized from the flu than the general U.S. population,” the CDC reports. “Experts aren't sure exactly why, but reasons … could include social and economic factors that often result in reduced access to health care and crowded living conditions.”
Pneumonia and flu are two leading causes of death among Native elders, the CDC reports. The flu can also worsen certain health conditions, including asthma, diabetes, and heart and lung disease.
“American Indians and Alaska Natives have high rates of these chronic health conditions, and are therefore at risk of developing severe complications from flu,” according to the CDC.
‘Vaccine side effects are not the flu’
People have been receiving flu vaccines for more than 50 years, and hundreds of millions of people have safely received them, according to the CDC.
“Each year, CDC works closely with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other partners to ensure the highest safety standards for flu vaccines,” CDC reports.
“The flu vaccine — shot or nasal spray — does not cause flu illness; however, it can cause mild side effects that may be mistaken for flu. For example, people vaccinated with the flu shot may feel achy and may have a sore arm where the shot was given. People vaccinated with the nasal spray flu vaccine may have a stuffy nose and sore throat. These side effects are not the flu. If experienced at all, these effects are usually mild and last only one to two days.”
According to Sanghavi, the nasal mist vaccine works best in children, but the shot is better for adults.
Vaccines are available at your local health care facility (even if you don’t have a regular doctor or nurse), at mobile and community-based immunization clinics, and at pharmacies and grocery stores. Check with your local health care facility for more information.
You can use the HealthMap Vaccine Finder here to find the nearest location where you and your family can get vaccinated. Most health insurance plans cover the cost of recommended vaccines. If you do not currently have health insurance, visit HealthCare.gov to learn more about affordable health coverage options.