Flu Season Haunted by Ghost of the Tuskegee Experiment

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – As the nation experiences a flu outbreak, some Black adults are refusing to get vaccines or to take their children for shots because of misconceptions about the vaccines, a top health official says. WASHINGTON (NNPA) – As the nation experiences a flu outbreak, some Black adults are refusing to get vaccines or to take their children for shots because of misconceptions about the vaccines, a top health official says.

"What we know from our focus group work is that a lot of the misconceptions about the influenza vaccine are seen in the African-American community," says Dr. Walt Orenstein, director of the national immunization program at the Atlanta-based Center for Disease Control and Prevention. "Tuskegee comes up and the trust of governmental recommendations."

The fear of being injected to fight influenza (flu), a contagious respiratory illness caused by a virus, may come from memories of the 1932 Tuskegee, Ala. syphilis study. In that experiment, the U. S. government used 600 Black men as human guinea pigs over a 40-year period. As part of the study, African-Americans were not treated for the disease after it had been diagnosed.

The CDC reports that last year, only 49.4 percent of the nation’s Black elderly got the shot while 68.1 percent in the White community did, a difference of 18.7 percent.

Concerned about the disparate rate of vaccines among the elderly, a group of doctors at the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., hope that at least 90 percent of Black elderly people will be vaccinated against flu every year.

"Our data show that we have significant work to do to reach this objective," says Trules Ostbye, lead author of a study that found the racial disparities between Blacks and Whites reaching as high as 20 percent over the past decade. "More research is needed to understand the cultural issues that may be a barrier to vaccination in this population."

Flu symptoms include having a fever, a headache, extreme tiredness, a dry cough, a sore throat, runny or stuffy nose and muscle aches. More common symptoms among children are nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

The flu virus is spread when someone coughs or sneezes it into the air or by leaving it on a surface where someone else picks it up and touches it with their nose or mouth.

One of the misconceptions, Oberstein says, is that people get the flu from the vaccine.

"I can tell you that the flu shot itself cannot cause the flu," he says. Oberstein says another misconception is that the vaccine does not work.

According to the CDC, people who get the vaccination rarely get the disease and if they do, it is usually a milder form. Other ways to protect against the flu is through prescription anti-viral medications.

Dr. Julie Gerberding, the director of CDC, has called the spread of the flu virus a national epidemic, in part, because of the rapid number of child deaths outside the normal age group and because flu outbreaks started in October, which is earlier than usual.

The CDC reports that last year’s flu season, which usually runs from November through March, was "relatively mild," although during any given year, approximately 36,000 people die from complications of the flu and 114,000 are hospitalized. The flu has shown up in all 50 states this year, but has hit particularly hard in about 36.

The elderly aren’t the only people who are especially vulnerable.

Children have been particularly hard hit with 42 deaths this year. Normally, child deaths occur under the age of 5, about 92 annually. But, this year, almost half of the deaths have been between the ages of five and 17.

It is difficult to track the extent of the illness among children or adults because state health departments are not federally mandated to report the disease, says CDC spokeswoman Rhonda Smith.
Some child advocates worry about the effectiveness of any CDC effort to narrow the gap between Blacks and Whites.

"Given that we have not resolved the racial

January 6, 2004
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