Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Native Population at Higher Risk of Illness or Death From Flu Sweeping the Nation

Terri Hansen
1/16/13

Influenza is now widespread in 47 states.

Vaccination rates are lower among American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/AN) than in the general population, yet AI/ANs are more likely to get seriously ill from the flu, and die at a rate 1.5 to four times that of other races and ethnicities, Amy Groom of the Indian Health Service (IHS) said.

During the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, Native people died at a rate four times greater than other races and ethnic groups. According to a 2009 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and IHS study, the factors that produce a higher influenza mortality rate among AI/ANs are unknown but might include higher prevalence of underlying chronic health conditions, and delayed access to health care.

Here are the steps Native people need to take during flu season.

It’s especially critical to get vaccinated each year to protect yourself, and those around you. Everyone six months of age and older needs the flu vaccine, especially those at high risk and those who can spread the virus to vulnerable populations, such as health care workers, and caregivers of children ages six months and younger.

Other populations at highest risk of influenza complications are  children less than five years of age,  and especially those less than two years of age, adults 65 years and older, pregnant women and those with chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and asthma.

The flu vaccine has a very good safety track record. It’s available by shot or nasal spray from your clinic, many pharmacies, schools, and local non-IHS clinics. You cannot get the flu from the vaccine.

Director of the CDC Dr. Thomas Frieden said on January 11 that since the flu season started influenza A-H3N2 has predominated nationally, followed by influenza B viruses.

This year’s seasonal flu vaccine protects against both the influenza A strain H3N2 as well as the main circulating influenza B strain, and against the influenza A H1N1 strain that caused so much disease in 2009, Groom said. In addition to flu vaccine, the elderly and those with chronic health conditions should ask their clinic for the pneumonia vaccine if they haven’t received that.

Flu shots don’t offer 100 percent protection, especially for the elderly. The CDC said in their Jan. 11 report the vaccine appeared to have an effectiveness rate of 62 percent. It is the best prevention tool at our disposal, Frieden said.

“Most of our clinics should have flu vaccine,” said Groom. “We do have a mechanism for clinics to get more vaccine supplies if they run out.”

The CDC recommends other steps you can take to protect yourself from getting the flu. Wash your hands often with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand rub. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. Try to avoid close contact with sick people. Get plenty of sleep, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids, and eat healthy foods. Cover your cough. If you get sick stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone without the use of fever-reducing medicine.

The CDC recommends antiviral treatment as early as possible for patients with confirmed or suspected influenza who have severe, complicated, or progressive illness; who require hospitalization; or who are at greater risk for serious influenza-related complications.

Groom said the IHS recommends that clinics follow the CDC guidelines. If the clinic sees a patient with influenza who is at high risk for influenza complications because of their age or an underlying health condition, they should start antivirals immediately. If they can’t get a patient in, they may make a referral to another clinic or hospital.

Flu-like symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Some people also may have vomiting and diarrhea. People may be infected with the flu, and have respiratory symptoms without a fever.

To learn more about keeping yourself and your loved ones flu-free, check out advice from the CDC. Visit CDC’s website to find out what to do if you get sick with the flu and how to care for someone at home who is sick with the flu.

Dr. Yvette Roubideaux, director of the Indian Health Service of HHS, encourages flu vaccinations to help keep Indian Country healthy:

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