By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
There has been a lot of talk of vaccines this year, especially with the recent unveiling of the COVID-19 vaccine. Although the availability of the COVID-19 vaccine is still limited, there is one vaccine that is available: the flu vaccine.
Several weeks ago, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services launched “Be an InFLUencer,” an education and awareness campaign designed to encourage Wisconsinites to get a flu vaccine. To make it easier, the department created a Vaccine Finder available at https://vaccinefinder.org/, which helps people find the vaccine administrator closest to them.
Last year, the state’s average rate for the flu vaccine was about 42%. It was especially low among communities of color with Blacks at 26%, Hispanics at 30%, American Indians/Alaska Natives at 27% and Asians at 32%.
Dr. Kevin Izard of Paladina Health and campaign spokesman said this year, the department took a different approach when it comes to encouraging people to get a flu shot.
Rather than doing the same thing, the department made a concerted effort to target African American and Hispanic communities. The goal of the campaign is to encourage trusted voices in the community to advocate for the flu vaccine, he said.
There were over 36,000 flu cases in Wisconsin last year, and of that nearly 5,000 people were hospitalized and 183 people died.
Izard said that the flu season typically occurs between late September and March, with a peak season in January and February. The flu vaccine is usually made available in late August, just in time for the school year, he said.
This year, the flu numbers are lower because of the safety measures in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Izard said. But it is because of COVID-19, that Izard stresses people should get the flu vaccine.
The symptoms are so similar, he said, that if someone has the flu vaccine than it can be ruled out.
“We don’t really have access to the COVID-19 vaccine, but at least we have a flu vaccine,” Izard said.
Historically, Black people hesitate to engage with the medical community, he said, which makes sense given how they’ve been treated. Other obstacles that may prevent people from getting a flu shot include insurance, transportation and schedule availability, he said.
Adding, “People aren’t used to getting it. If they don’t know people getting it, they won’t get it.”
There are also some misconceptions about the flu vaccine including that people who get the vaccine are likely to get the flu. That is not true, he said. The flu vaccine has a 50% efficacy rate, he said.
During the summer season in the northern hemisphere, researchers will look at what strain is being passed around in the southern hemisphere to determine which strain will be prevalent come winter.
The flu vaccine can be administrated through a shot or through a nasal spray, although Izard recommended getting the shot.
The vaccine introduces a flu protein into the body, which encourages the body to make antibodies. In other words, if a person does get the flu, their body is more prepared to fight it. The antibodies can take a couple of weeks to reach their maximum efficacy and take effect.
If someone is getting the flu vaccine for the first time, Izard recommended get it a second time a month later. If someone gets the flu vaccine annually, there body may already have those antibodies, he explained.
Last week, a patient of Izard reached out because he had heard Izard’s flu vaccine advertisement on a podcast. After talking it over, the man decided to come in and get his flu shot for the first time ever. It may be one person, but it is a start.
While it’s too soon to see how effective the “Be an InFLUencer” campaign is, Izard is hopeful.
“Bottom line is this – we have an opportunity,” Izard said. “We don’t have access to the COVID-19 vaccine, but we do have access to the flu vaccine. Why not take it? It would help a whole lot. For everybody’s sake, we should get it.”