How This Season's Flu Epidemic Impacts the Latino Community

As more people forgo their annual flu shots and ignore health precautions, the 2018 season could get worse, especially for the Latino community.

Flu mask

A bad flu season in the United States can be a very bad flu season for Latinos. The U.S. 2017-2018 flu season was categorized as an “epidemic” back in November and has been designated “moderately severe,” with cases reported in every continental state. Experts say it could get worse.

Every year the Latino community is hit harder by influenza than other demographics, according to several studies. In 2016, the flu was the third highest cause of death among Latinos in New York City.

Reports show Hispanics and Latinos are less likely to get vaccinated than other ethnic groups. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 39.1 percent of Latino adults do not get vaccinated, in comparison to 49.1 percent of non-Hispanic adults. Access to health care is also a factor that impacts the community directly. About 20 percent of Latinos under 65 years old do not have health insurance, according to the CDC, and 27 percent lack a regular physician. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease, argues that a lack of a primary care doctor is a big factor impacting the group. “If there is no one pressuring you to take a vaccine, you’re less likely to get it,” he says.

This is why the CDC targets the community to break down language barriers and reluctance toward immunization by distributing material in Spanish. The agency even created telenovela-like ad titled Un Amor Prohibido, which reminds the community how important vaccines are for families and pregnant women.

According to Fauci, there are three factors to identify a particularly bad flu season. First, the nature of the virus each year is essential to estimating how big the epidemic could be. For 2017-18, the U.S. was hit with an Influenza A (H3N2) virus, which media outlets worldwide dubbed a “Killer Aussie Flu” because of high rates of hospitalizations and deaths during the winter season in Australia. However, Fauci says this term is exaggerated due to differences in vaccine requirements in Australia and the U.S. “The H3N2 is historically a bad actor,” he says. “You can be sure people will be infected in big numbers, but this is not unprecedented.”

A second factor impacting flu season is the composition of the vaccine. This year is not a good match for the H3N2 strand. That’s not to say people shouldn’t get vaccinated, according to Fauci. “Any degree of protection is better than none,” he says. “It’s never too late.”

A bad flu season can also be predicted by the past exposure of the population to the virus. Since H3N2 is not common in the U.S., the majority of the people in the States likely lack a previously developed immunity toward this strain.

Flu case numbers and ER visits are escalating to alarming rates, with deaths from related infections, like pneumonia and septic shock, headlining the news. Earlier in January, a fit 21-year-old Pennsylvania man died from a flu-related organ failure; and 20 influenza-related infant deaths have been reported so far. Hospitalizations have hit a cumulative rate of 22.7 per 100,000 this year, according to the CDC. Though Fauci reiterates that these numbers are not unusual for a severe season, the epidemic will likely continue until April.

To prevent getting and spreading influenza, the CDC recommends a yearly vaccine that protects against a variety of flu viruses. While a nasal spray vaccine exists, the agency is urging people to get an injectable vaccine during the 2017-2018 season. Vaccination of high-risk individuals is also top priority, meaning pregnant women, children and those over 65 should expedite immunization. Fauci also recommends avoiding confined and crowded spaces, washing your hands, and avoiding school or work while possibly infected. The specialist also says that the best course of action once you get sick is to take an antiviral drug like Tamiflu.

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