The Flu Vaccine IS a Black and White Issue. Yes, I am Talking about Race.

I want to open with a personal story, something I don’t often do. I have been arguing for TWO whole days on the Internet because a group of mostly white women are telling a black and female friend of mine not to get the flu vaccine.

Vaccine denial is one of the worst types of white privilege. White women are more affluent, enjoy more access to healthcare, have more resources when caring for sick family members, and often affluent white women don’t work while rearing children. In short, they are better equipped and prepared to deal with a devastating illness like the flu (and a costly hospitalization) and are less likely to have the pre-existing conditions that contribute to death from flu. It is honestly so distressing for me to know that women, often upper middle-class Whites, are influencing other women, especially women of color, to not get the flu vaccine.

Black adults are significantly less likely to be immunized for seasonal influenza when compared to Whites. This persistent disparity contributes to increased influenza-related morbidity and mortality in the African American population. Black people are also much likely to suffer from complicating factors: cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. A Black woman is 22 percent more likely to die from heart disease than a White woman, 71 percent more likely to perish from cervical cancer, for example.

Black people have historically and contemporarily been maltreated by medical science. Black women have been operated on without anesthesia, their pain tolerance is erroneously believed to be higher than White people, have been sterilized without consent, and unknowingly infected with STDs. They have made hundreds of millions of dollars for white people with their cells without consent or compensation. Black women die in DROVES during pregnancy and childbirth, and are 243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy- or childbirth-related causes than white women. Clinical trials often include no black people, even though drugs have been found to be less effective for them. The human “reference” genome is mostly from White people.

It is easy to see how Black people might be inherently mistrustful of a system that has been flawed, and participate less in all types of preventive health care, including vaccination (Armstrong et al., 2013; Musa et al., 2009). Extensive scholarship documents Black attitudes toward health care, for both historical and contemporary abuses (Boulware, Cooper, Ratner, LaVeist, & Powe, 2003; Freimuth et al., 2001; Kennedy, Mathis, & Woods, 2006; Thomas & Quinn, 1991).

During the 2015–16 influenza season, only 37% percent of Black adults were immunized, compared to 45% percent of White adults (CDC, 2016). A Black-White disparity in immunization rates has been observed across all ages and in high-risk populations including in pregnant women, adults with chronic diseases, and health care workers (Lu et al., 2014).

Influenza is the most frequent cause of death from a vaccine-preventable disease in the United States. In a study of influenza seasons from 1976–1977 through 2006–2007, the estimated number of annual influenza-associated deaths from respiratory and circulatory causes ranged from a low of 3,349 (1985–1986 season) to a high of 48,614 (2003–2004 season), with an average of 23,607 influenza-associated deaths. In addition to fatalities, seasonal influenza is also responsible for more than 200,000 hospitalizations.

The levels of influenza-like illnesses being reported now are as high as the peak of the swine flu epidemic in 2009, and exceed the last severe seasonal flu outbreak in 2003. The swine flu epidemic (2009 and 2010) sickened 60.8 million Americans, hospitalized 274,304, and killed 12,469, according to CDC data. Deaths from the current outbreak are expected to far outpace this. We know that:

  • Almost one-third of people hospitalized with complications from 2009 H1N1 influenza were persons with asthma. Asthma-related hospitalization and mortality rates from all causes, not just influenza, are approximately two to three times higher among non-Hispanic blacks compared with non-Hispanic whites.
  • Approximately 10 percent of people hospitalized with complications from 2009 H1N1 influenza have been diabetic. Among adults 20 years of age and older, diabetes is more prevalent among non-Hispanic blacks (12%) compared with non-Hispanic whites (7%).

Many Black people do not trust the flu shot and many Whites don’t think the flu is that big of a deal. They have no problem advising Blacks to not get the flu shot, an opinion that can be a death sentence in a vulnerable population. Unfortunately, in this country, more dead Black people ISN’T that big a deal for Whites.

Black Lives Matter. Get your flu shot!