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Doctor would like to immunize Black L.A. to the flu

Rebecca Rona-Tuttle | 11/16/2011, 5 p.m.

It's the middle of flu season, and Oliver Brooks, M.D., struggles to convince adults--especially African American adults--to get their flu shots and to immunize their children.

When given the choice, most people would choose good health over poor health, the doctor believes. But despite this, many African Americans avoid flu immunizations and put themselves at risk.

Many believe the flu is little different from the common cold. But they are mistaken, he said. Influenza is far more unpleasant and far more dangerous, said Brooks, associate medical director and chief of the Department of Pediatrics at the Watts HealthCare Corp. He has promoted flu immunization vigorously since 2000, first as chair of Immunize L.A. Kids, and more recently as chair of Immunize L.A. Families.

Pregnant women, infants, children under the age of 5, and adults above the age of 50, particularly those with chronic health problems such as asthma and diabetes, are especially vulnerable to flu symptoms. They can suffer complications, catch pneumonia and die. It happens every flu season.

"Minorities tend to have more health problems," said Brooks, "making them more likely to have complications if they develop the flu. I tell people, 'Take advantage of scientific advances. Use them!' The flu vaccine is the safest and most effective way to protect yourself, your family and your community against the flu."

Among African Americans, immunization rates are far lower than among Whites.

In 2009, approximately 50 percent of Los Angeles County White adults 50 and older reported having received a flu shot within the past 12 months, in contrast to 39 percent of African Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Health disparities between African Americans and others trouble Brooks, a graduate of Morehouse College, "the family college," and the Howard University School of Medicine.

Asked why a lower percentage of African Americans get immunized against influenza, Brooks described six significant problems:
* Access to preventive health services
* Mistrust of the healthcare delivery system
* Misperceptions about immunization
* Income disparity
* Cultural issues and
* Health information tailored toward the majority population

Many people lack access to adequate preventive health services: no clinics or medical offices are located near their homes. Even those who do live near doctor's offices often cannot afford health insurance and routine healthcare.

Misperceptions about immunization and the flu are common to people of all income levels and ethnicities. Brooks ticks off the misperceptions:
* The flu is no more dangerous than a cold
* Flu shots can actually cause the flu. "Occasionally," said Brooks, "a person will get the flu shortly after having been immunized, because it takes approximately two weeks after receiving the shot to build up sufficient immunity against the flu."
* People confuse the flu with other, more mild illnesses. "The flu is more than a cold; fever is a hallmark of the flu," said Brooks. "Most who say they had the flu never had fever, hence never had the flu."

Flu immunizations can be obtained at no cost at community flu clinics throughout November and into December. For locations and dates, phone the L.A. County information number: 2-1-1.