San Francisco, CA – If you’re down with the flu, then the bad news is that it might be like 1918 all over again. It’s peak flu season in the United States once again and to make matters worse, this season’s influenza virus is more deadly and killing more Americans than ever before. The amount of new influenza cases ravaging the U.S. this year rivals levels normally seen when an altogether new virus emerges, decimating a vulnerable population that hasn’t had a chance to develop any defenses. But the reason may be found in history.
About 100 years ago, in 1918, a flu pandemic swept across the entire planet, killing an estimated 20 million to 40 million people worldwide. In the U.S., the flu virus was spread particularly virulently in the segregated black communities which had non-existent healthcare services.
Today, blacks are also spreading the flu virus as fast as in 1918, but the reason is not a lack of access to healthcare, but a refusal to seek immunization against the flu virus. More than half of black Americans refuse to get an annual flu shot because of concern of side effects. According to Vicki Freimuth, a professor of health and risk communication at the University of Georgia,
“Most blacks have very limited understanding of the way vaccine recommendations are determined and how vaccines are made and distributed.”
Only 41 percent of black adults in the United States get the seasonal flu shot, compared to 47 percent of white adults, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The numbers are problematic, because the entire viability of a vaccine is that sufficient numbers of people are immunized against the virus to prevent it’s spread. The resultant low rate of black vaccination against the influenza virus has led to the unexpected phenomenon that we are experiencing today, with a high number of infections, many of which are fatal but without a new virus or a mutated virus being found responsible. According to Dr. Jamie Sanders of the CDC,
“It makes no sense whatsoever. The numbers (of infections) that we’re seeing – these are numbers for a new strain of influenza, not an existing strain. What we’re looking at is a failure to prepare ourselves adequately as a nation for the flu season. This pandemic was entirely preventable.”
The levels of influenza-like illnesses being reported now are as high as the peak of the swine flu epidemic in 2009, and exceed the last severe seasonal flu outbreak in 2003 when a new strain started circulating, said Anne Schuchat, the CDC’s acting director. Swine flu, which swept the globe in 2009 and 2010, sickened 60.8 million Americans, hospitalized 274,304 and killed 12,469, according to CDC data. Deaths from the current outbreak will likely far outstrip those of the 2009-2010 season. Schuchat said,
“This is a difficult season, and we can’t predict how much longer the severe season will last. I wish there was better news, but everything we are looking at is bad news.”
The primary type of influenza this year hasn’t changed enough from previous seasons to be considered a novel strain, Schuchat said. But as the days draw on, it is becoming increasingly obvious to the CDC that the virus is spreading faster in poor black communities where as much as 97 percent of the black population has not received a flu shot.
Deaths from influenza and pneumonia, which are closely tied to each other in the winter months, were responsible for 1 of every 10 deaths last week, and that’s likely to rise, Schuchat said in a conference call Friday. There were 40,414 deaths in the U.S. during the third week of 2018, the most recent data available, and 4,064 were from pneumonia or influenza, according to the CDC data. The number for that week is expected to rise more reports are sent to the agency.
It gets worse. The death toll in future weeks is expected to grow even higher because flu activity is still rising – and the number of deaths follow the flu activity. Hospitalization rates are already approaching total numbers seen at the end of the flu season, which may not be for months. Schuchat said,
“Unfortunately, more deaths are likely to happen. Over the next few weeks, we do expect and it would make sense to see more pneumonia and influenza-related deaths. The people who are likely to die are already in the hospital.”
To make matters worse, many of those who have not received flu shots are poor blacks living in inner city areas who live in close proximity with each other. The CDC started recommending universal vaccination to stop the spread of the virus in 2010, after previously targeting only those in high-risk groups who were most likely to die from an infection, but the measure had limited effectiveness during the Obama administration. Liberal-minded officials in the Obama administration who had believed there was a link between immunization and autism in children did not want to pressure the American public too hard on immunization. To make matters worse, the black community, which typically never sought flu shots to begin with, now had a “legitimate” claim to refusing the flu shot – a tenuous and now debunked link between immunization and autism. The effect of the Obama years is now being felt at Category 5 storm levels now on the flu front.
The CDC reported another 10 flu deaths among children this season, 7 of them black, bringing the total to 63 so far. Half had no other medical conditions that would place them in the high-risk category, but only 1 in 5 had been vaccinated, none of them were black.
The problem is particularly contentious because the CDC is still staffed with Obama-era officials who are reluctant to single out the black community for the latest pandemic for fear of stoking the racist flames that fed the fear of blacks during the 1918 “black flu.” Schuchat adds,
“We’re not going to get anywhere by pretending that there isn’t a problem. If we don’t start with the honest and tough work of vaccinating the entire nation, then the flu will hit us again next year, only ten times harder and with many more deaths.”
The culture of political correctness has prevented Schuchat and some of her more vocal colleagues from expressing their concerns about the low rate of black flu vaccinations more vocally, but at the current rate of infection, it won’t be long before their concerns are made obvious.