Rate of Flu Shots Among American Indians among lowest in U.S.

A column by Walter Lamar about disease outbreaks.

This fall, most of us will suffer from nothing worse than hay fever. However, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has issued several warnings recently about rising numbers of more serious illnesses. The bad news is that these serious ailments can cause death. The good news is that they're all preventable.

When you or someone in your house gets a fever, cough, body aches, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea, you know it's flu season. Flu season starts when kids go back to school, peaks in January and February, and continues as late as May.

Getting a seasonal flu shot is the best way to prevent a severe case of influenza. Pregnant women, young children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems are particularly at risk for contracting a flu and are encouraged to get vaccinated as soon as this year's vaccine is available. The flu shot takes about two weeks to be fully effective, but lasts all season and is effective against common types of flu viruses, including H1N1.

In Indian country, our rates for getting flu shots are among the lowest in the country. The Indian Health Service has been tracking rates for several years and reports a consistent but low rate of about 33 percent to 35 percent of the Native population getting their seasonal vaccines. Among IHS health care workers, the rate has been increasing and is currently about 75 percent.

If you are one of the many people who can't bear getting shots, then you can still take preventative measures to stay well, or if you get sick, to avoid spreading illness. Germs are mostly spread through hand to face contact, so it's critical to wash your hands thoroughly and use hand sanitizer when it's available. If you're sick, stay home from work or school and sneeze or cough into a tissue, or the crook of your elbow.

If you're planning to attend a state or county fair this fall, take extra precautions around the livestock. CDC health officials want attendees to avoid taking food and drinks into barns and to wash their hands after they're near animals. The CDC has reported 12 new cases of swine flu this week alone, all of which came from humans working with pigs and pigs being in crowded conditions.

Like the flu, whooping cough (pertussis) can be prevented through regular vaccination, including a series of five shots as a child, then boosters as an adult. Either Americans have not been getting adequately vaccinated or the vaccines have not been strong enough, because this potentially deadly disease has come back with a vengeance.

The CDC is reporting the worst outbreak in 50 years, with 46 states reporting increases over the past year. After reporting over 3,700 cases, the state of Washington has declared an epidemic. Minnesota, Montana and Wisconsin are likewise seeing a shockingly high incidence of pertussis. Elsewhere in Indian Country, New Mexico and North Dakota have reported more than three times as many cases as previous years.

The CDC warns that this disease requires months of recovery, is dangerous for the elderly and pregnant women, and can be fatal to infants. This year, unusually high numbers of older children are suffering from whooping cough, particularly 10-year-olds and 13- to 14-year-olds. Both adults and older children are encouraged to check with their doctors about getting a booster.

No vaccine can protect you from West Nile Virus, which is also on the rise. The CDC reports 783 confirmed cases—40 percent more than in 2011—in every state except Alaska and Hawaii. Most cases are in Texas, South Dakota, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Michigan. The neuroinvasive disease can cause high fever, headache, neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness, vision loss, numbness and paralysis. West Nile Virus has claimed 31 lives so far this year and the CDC expects the numbers to rise through October, or the first hard freeze.

New Mexico entomologist Richard Fagerlund offers some tips for reducing risk from West Nile Virus without toxic pesticides. First, reduce standing water around your house by emptying flower pots, buckets, barrels and wading pools. Kill mosquito larvae in rain barrels or other water you can't empty by adding either food-grade diatomaceous earth or extract of orange, lemon or garlic. Fagerlund also recommends plantings of geraniums, lemongrass, birch, basil, mint, rosemary, spearmint and yarrow to repel mosquitos in the yard.

Although many of the outbreaks right now are seasonal, it's always a good time to practice good preventative health! If you have a population who needs to learn more about staying healthy, Lamar Associates can help. Recent public health programs have included free online H1N1 training, teen alcohol and drug abuse prevention and officer wellness training.

Walter Lamar, Blackfeet/Wichita, is a former FBI Special Agent, Deputy Director of BIA Law Enforcement and currently President of Lamar Associates. Lamar Associates Indian Country Training Division offers culturally appropriate training for Indian Country law enforcement and service professionals with both on-site and online courses.