A vaccine dose.

African-Americans especially vulnerable

 With COVID-19 and the Omicron variant’s global threat to public health dominating the news, it’s easy to forget the importance of getting the flu shot to protect oneself against this other potentially deadly viral disease, health experts warn.

 With National Influenza Vaccination Week last week, it’s important to know it’s not too late to get your flu shot, which will help protect against contracting the coronavirus. That’s because the flu vaccine will help build up immune systems, making one less vulnerable to catching COVID-19.

 According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African-Americans are a vulnerable population with low flu vaccination rates who experience disproportionately higher rates of chronic diseases such as asthma, diabetes, heart diseases and obesity, said Dr. Sharon Okonkwo-Holmes, a family practice physician with Kaiser Permanente Southern California.

Research has demonstrated that systemic inequities and implicit bias have contributed to this disparity among African-Americans. Chronic conditions place African-Americans at higher risks for severe influenza complications.

 “If  you’re not vaccinated, you’re more likely to catch the flu virus, and that is likely to weaken your immune system, making you more vulnerable to catching other respiratory infections including COVID-19,” said Dr. Margaret Khoury, an infectious disease specialist who is Kaiser Permanente Southern California’s COVID-19 and influenza vaccination program physician lead. “That’s why it’s highly recommended that you get your flu shot to protect your health and that of your loved ones.”

Getting vaccinated against influenza is especially important during this flu season,” Khoury noted. Every year, physicians recommend getting vaccinated as a way to protect yourself against contracting or spreading influenza, which is already here. But this year, the ongoing pandemic has made this single act of preventative care especially critical at protecting yourself from a disease that plagues millions each year.

 Khoury said having the flu and COVID-19 at the same time would be devastating to your health. “Studies have shown the flu vaccine remains the most effective prevention against contracting the flu and its complications,” she explained.

 In most years, millions of people in the U.S. get the flu, and hundreds of thousands of individuals end up in the emergency room or hospitalized with severe complications, said Dr. David Bronstein, who also practices at Kaiser Permanente Southern California.

 “We’re anticipating a worse influenza season,” he noted. “Last year, we saw fewer flu cases, mainly due to the strict precautions we all took and because the coronavirus crowded out the flu,” he explained.

Khoury said getting the flu vaccine is critically important especially for the most sensitive populations. They include the elderly, pregnant women, children younger than five years of age, along with those with chronic health conditions, she explained.

When it comes to children who never received the flu vaccine before, those under age 8 will need to receive two flu shots, with a booster vaccine given 28 days after the first inoculation. Parents are strongly encouraged to vaccinate their children this year, as many children have resumed in-person learning at their schools, and will be more susceptible to being infected with the flu virus as they interact with other students and teachers. 

“A common misconception is that a flu shot will give you the flu,” Bronstein noted. “That’s simply not true. You cannot contract the flu from getting a flu shot. Side effects, if they occur, are typically very mild. However, by not getting vaccinated, you put yourself and your loved ones at a greater risk of getting the flu, which causes serious illness, hospitalizations and thousands of deaths each year.”

Kaiser Permanente members are encouraged to visit kp.org/flu or call the flu hotline number at (866) 706-6358 for information on how to safely get your free flu vaccine at Kaiser Permanente facilities across Southern California.

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