WASHINGTON – Seasonal flu is on the rise in Maryland, particularly in low-income and minority communities — a reality the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is fighting with a media campaign.
“We want to use radio and TV ads to target a broader population,” said David Paulson, communications director for DHMH. “And our approach is to reach a low-uptake population that doesn’t normally get vaccinated.”
Paulson defined this population as those from rural communities and African-Americans.
“People who live in rural areas are often geographically disconnected from medical resources,” he said. “And our focus groups show that African-Americans are less likely to trust medical authority. We need to reach these populations.”
Overall, less than two-thirds of rural adults over age 65 received the recommended influenza vaccination in 2005, the Rural Assistance Center found, however the same report determined that white adults in rural areas had consistent immunization rates.
In 2008, the federal Office of Minority Health found that African-American adults were less likely than non-Hispanic white adults to receive flu vaccinations.
To try to improve the numbers, last year, the Department of Health and Human Services launched Healthy People 2010, a 10-year national objective for improving the health of all Americans. That initiative set a 2010 vaccination goal of 60 percent. Both non-Hispanic blacks and non-Hispanic whites fell short at 30 and 31 percent respectively.
The Maryland health department publicity push, paid for by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, began with radio and TV spots airing statewide in late fall 2010.
The campaign aims to promote cultural literacy about why it’s good to go to the doctor, get routine check-ups and take advantage of local health clinic services, including flu shots.
Paulson said flu cases have jumped from local to widespread since the beginning of January. And more than 270 confirmed cases of flu were reported for the week ending Jan. 1. No one from Maryland has died during this season’s flu outbreak, he said.
Despite the numbers, Jeff Dimond, a logistics health contractor for the CDC, said it’s still difficult to quantify how severely low-income people are affected.
“We usually have to go back in and do surveillance to be sure,” said Dimond. “But we do know that poorer people are probably uninsured, and that they do not have ready access to health care professionals. They also cannot afford vaccinations.”
“It’s not too late to get vaccinated,” said Paulson, who acknowledged that many people get their flu shots in September — the month they typically become available. Vaccinations are available in a three-for-one cocktail for strains H1N1, H3N2 and B. Peak season, Paulson said, runs from September to December.
Pharmacists who offer flu shots everywhere from CVS to Safeway see the peak trend firsthand.
“From October to December, we had about eight to 10 customers on average per week,” said Uche Eyisi, a CVS pharmacist in Waldorf.
“In January, we’ve seen maybe one or two Monday through Friday,” she said.
But Eyisi customers can afford their shots.
“Most of the customers have insurance,” she said. “I’ve never seen one pay out of pocket.”
Though Paulson applauded the convenience of getting vaccinated at a chain, calling it “a great marketing tool,” he said the stores exclude those who need the medicine most — those with lower incomes, particularly the younger population.
The CDC recommends seasonal shots for children, ages 6 months to 19 years old. Younger children who have never had a shot, Dimond said, should get two doses.
Abraham Ojo, a Rite Aid pharmacist in Park Heights — a low-income neighborhood in West Baltimore — has also noticed a shift in flu-shot customer traffic.
“This month, we’ve only seen three to five customers a week,” said Ojo. “Late last year, we saw almost twice that much.”
Ojo said though Park Heights is not a wealthy community, most of his customers have insurance.
“Once in a while we’ll have folks with no insurance, who have difficulty paying,” he said. “In that case, we let them know about the city’s free clinics.”
Paulson said while free clinics have their perks, they are not as golden as they seem for someone working two jobs and trying to feed their children on a meager salary.
“If you’re talking about low-income people, you’re talking about people with fewer resources,” he said. “Sure the shot is free, but then they have to worry about transportation costs and finding the time to get there.”