A new study published October 5 in The Journal of the American Medial Association showed that flu vaccinations cut the risk of hospitalization in half. Specifically, the researchers found that the flu vaccine was 57 percent effective in stopping flu-related pneumonia.
That’s excellent news for American Indians and Alaska Natives, because indigenous populations, including Native Americans are at higher risk for complications from influenza infections, including pneumonia. In fact, pneumonia and flu are two of the leading causes of death among Native elders.
American Indians and Alaska Natives are hospitalized in higher numbers from the flu than the general population, and in the case of the recent H1N1 swine flu, died at a rate four times that of the general population from complications of the flu, such as pneumonia.
That’s why it’s so important that Natives protect themselves and those they come in contact with by getting a flu shot. Flu season typically starts in October and lasts through May, so now is the time to get yourself and your family members vaccinated, because it takes up to two weeks to build up full immunity.
Unfortunately, the rate of flu shots among Native Americans is lowest in the U.S., so it’s worth noting that the flu vaccine cannot give you the flu. The most common side effect from vaccination is a sore arm and maybe a low fever or achiness. The nasal spray flu vaccine might cause congestion, runny nose, sore throat, or cough. If you do experience these at all, these side effects are mild and short lived.
Given the various sources and distribution processes for influenza vaccine distribution, the Indian Health Service is recommending that patients call their local facility to check on the availability of the influenza vaccine.
IHS believes that IHS/Tribal/Urban (I/T/U) facilities will have adequate supply of flu vaccine and anti-viral products for the 2015-16 flu season. Similar to the general public, most I/T/U facilities have received at least 50 percent of their influenza vaccine order and are on target to receive 100 percent of most dosage forms by October 31, 2015. Nearly all anti-viral products continue to be readily available via routine distribution sources and there is no anticipated shortage being reported by drug manufacturers.
What if you or a family member does get sick? Call your clinic or your medical provider right away to ask about antiviral drugs if you’re in a high-risk category, which Native Americans are. Antivirals offer a second line of defense to treat the flu.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends antiviral treatment with oseltamivir or zanamivir 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 high risk for serious influenza-related complications.
Because the flu is mainly spread by droplets when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk, wash your hands often, and keep your hands away from your eyes, nose or mouth to avoid infection. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing, or cough into the crook of your elbow.
If in spite of these measures you do become sick, keep your distance from others. Forgo errands until you are well so as not to risk others. Wear a face mask to keep from spreading infectious droplets to others if you must go out. Employers are part of the solution, and need to support workers who must stay home from work to prevent others from catching their illness.