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Many African American Seniors Have Misconceptions About Flu Vaccine

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March 21, 2006

CHICAGO --- Public service messages about the importance of getting vaccinated against the flu may not be addressing some of the key concerns of African-American seniors and may contribute to lower vaccination rates, according to Northwestern University researchers.

The results of their preliminary study, conducted among African-American seniors in Chicago, were presented on Monday, March 20, at the 16th Annual Scientific Session of the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America.

“Current overall vaccination rates of American adults age 65 and older are approximately 65 percent, compared to only 48 percent for African-Americans,” said Kenzie A. Cameron, research assistant professor of medicine, Program in Communication and Medicine/general internal medicine, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has set a 90 percent goal vaccination rate among seniors.

The Northwestern study found :

•Concerns that flu vaccine gives individuals the flu. “Although we may tell people that influenza vaccine does not give you the flu, we often fail to explain why some people have this misconception,” Cameron said.

For example, the vaccine may cause mild symptoms such as fever that can be mistaken for the flu; some people may have already contracted the flu prior to receiving the vaccination; others may contract the flu before the vaccine takes full effect; or the vaccine may not match the strain of flu a person comes in contact with.

•Misunderstandings about how often vaccination is needed. “Some seniors equate flu vaccination with common childhood vaccines that confer lifelong resistance to diseases such as diphtheria and whooping cough without annual re-vaccination,” Cameron  said.

•Incomplete information about the significance of different flu strains. Although most of the African-American seniors Cameron and co-researchers interviewed were familiar with the different strains of influenza, they had not been given information to link that knowledge with the need to develop vaccines for each strain of flu as it came along.

•The lingering effects of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments. The seniors who participated in the study were specifically asked about the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments conducted on 399 African-American men from 1932 to 1972, during which the participants were denied known treatments for the disease.

“Some of the seniors were interviewed did not know about Tuskegee,” Cameron said. “But those who did thought that the researchers did more than withhold treatment – they thought the men were actually injected with syphilis.”

One woman interviewed suggested that she believed the “necessity” of yearly vaccinations came about because vaccine manufacturers and health care systems were “still trying to figure out a proper solution and that the vaccine was still experimental.”

Information for the study was collected in group interviews with African-American seniors at churches, community centers and health care centers throughout Chicago. The average age of participants was 74 years and the majority – 85 percent – were women.

Although 77 percent of participants said they had received the flu vaccine at some time in their life, only 50 percent had been vaccinated the previous year.

Although this was a small group, and their responses cannot be projected to the community as a whole, results of the Northwestern study confirm those of studies conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others.

Flu and flu-like illnesses are a major cause of sickness and death in the United States, and seniors are particularly hard hit. According to the latest figures from the CDC, influenza kills approximately 44,000 Americans age 65 and older each year, compared to about 7,000 people in all other age groups.

Co-authors of the study were Feinberg School researchers Gary A. Noskin, M.D.; Lance S. Rintamaki; Mafo Kamanda-Kosseh; David W. Baker, M.D.; and Gregory Makoul.

Topics: Research