Study: Misconceptions keep blacks from flu shots March 20, 2006 BY LORI RACKL Health Reporter Advertisement New research that looked at elderly black Chicagoans' attitudes about the flu vaccine suggests common misconceptions might be fueling African Americans' notoriously low vaccination rates. Older people are at greatest risk for serious complications from influenza, which is why public health officials recommend they get the flu shot each year. While 65 percent of whites in this country ages 65 and older get vaccinated, only 48 percent of black seniors do. "What that says to me is we're not getting the right message out there -- we're missing something people need to hear," said Northwestern University researcher Kenzie A. Cameron, lead author of the study being presented today in Chicago at the annual meeting of the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America. Cameron and her team interviewed small groups of elderly African Americans across Chicago to better understand why blacks have such a low vaccination rate. Previous studies have shown the disparity can't be solely chalked up to whites' better access to health care. Tuskegee concerns Many of the 48 people the researchers talked to said they believed the vaccine could cause the flu -- a common misconception. Cameron said it isn't enough to simply tell people it's impossible to catch the disease from the injectable vaccine, which doesn't contain a live virus. Health care workers should explain that people sometimes experience mild, flulike symptoms as they rally the antibodies needed to guard against infection. And it's possible to get the flu after a shot if you were exposed to the virus shortly before receiving the vaccine, which takes full effect after two weeks. Misunderstandings about how often the flu shot is needed also appeared to play a role in poor vaccination rates. While most of those interviewed knew there were different strains of influenza, they didn't always understand that annual changes in these strains mean a new shot is needed every year. Some had a distrust of the vaccine. Researchers suggested this might be partially due to a lingering effect of the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments, where black men were denied known treatments for the disease. Burden on health care workers "Some of the seniors we interviewed did not know about Tuskegee," Cameron said. "But those who did thought that the researchers did more than withhold treatment -- they thought the men were actually injected with syphilis." Cameron said public service messages should be aimed at clearing up these misconceptions and that health care workers need to hammer home the importance of yearly flu shots for elderly blacks. "Some told us they'd gone to clinics and asked the nurse if they should get the flu shot, and the nurse said, 'I wouldn't get it because so many people get ill from it,' " Cameron said. "Health care providers need to speak with a unified voice." Other influenza research to be unveiled at today's meeting found that one standard dose of flu vaccine might protect up to five people -- encouraging news if the country faces another vaccine shortage like it did in 2004, when the United States lost half of its flu shot supply. Dartmouth Medical School researchers gave 1,602 healthy people a flu vaccine containing only one-fifth the regular dose. Preliminary results showed the diluted vaccine, injected under the skin instead of into the muscle as usual, proved at least as good as the regular vaccine in preventing flulike illness.