Minority Groups More at Risk of Flu Hospitalization, CDC Warns

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With a severe flu season potentially on the way, federal health officials are pushing for more vaccinations among racial and ethnic minorities who historically have had lower coverage and been at higher risk of being severely affected by influenza.

During the 2021-2022 influenza season, the vaccination rate was 38% among Hispanic adults, 41% among American Indian or Alaska Native individuals, and 42% among Black adults compared with 54% among both white and Asian adults and 49% overall, according to a report published Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since the 2010-2011 season, according to the report, flu vaccine coverage “has been consistently higher among white and Asian adults compared with that among Black and Hispanic adults.”

Disparities in vaccination coverage have coincided with higher rates of hospitalizations associated with the flu among racial and ethnic minority groups in recent years. From 2009-2010 through 2021-2022, the report says, the age-adjusted rate of influenza-associated hospitalizations was highest among Black adults at 78.2 per 100,000 individuals – roughly 80% higher than the rate among white adults. Also compared with whites, rates of flu-associated hospitalizations were 30% higher among American Indian or Alaska Native adults and 20% higher among Hispanic adults, according to the CDC.

In a call with reporters Tuesday, Dr. Debra Houry, acting principal deputy director of the CDC, cited factors like less access to health care services and insurance, missed opportunities by health care providers to vaccinate patients during visits, and general mistrust and misinformation about vaccines as contributors to the disparities in both flu vaccination coverage and outcomes.

“Vaccination is the best defense we have against the worst outcomes of getting the flu,” Houry said.

The new report found disparate patterns in influenza vaccination coverage similar to those recently identified in COVID-19 booster vaccination. Despite fairly equitable vaccination rates for initial COVID-19 shots, Black (43%) and Hispanic (37%) individuals recently had the lowest vaccination coverage for a booster after having completed the primary series, according to a September CDC report, with both groups below the national mark of 50%.

Influenza was responsible for 140,000 to 710,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 to 52,000 deaths annually between 2010 and 2020, the CDC estimates. The 2020-2021 flu season was extremely mild, as safety measures like social distancing and mask-wearing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are believed to have helped curb flu activity. The CDC analysis did not include hospitalization rates from the 2020-2021 season.

Carla Black, a CDC epidemiologist, said there is an expectation flu transmission will increase this year as fewer people practice safety precautions while less exposure to the virus over the past two years has created less natural immunity.

In an update for the new flu season posted Oct. 8, the CDC reported “early increases in seasonal influenza activity” in most of the U.S., with the highest levels of activity found in the southeast and south-central parts of the country.

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