H1N1 Risk High for Minorities

Antonio Olivo, Chicago Tribune, September 13, 2009

As the H1N1 flu virus spreads anew across Chicago, the already-busy staff inside North Lawndale’s Westside Family Health Center expects that communities like theirs will see thousands of potentially life-threatening cases.

The long-struggling African-American neighborhood is considered a medically underserved area, where contact with doctors is sporadic and rates are high for chronic conditions such as asthma or diabetes, which make patients more vulnerable to H1N1 and other flu viruses.

“If you notice any [flu] symptoms, you should come see me as soon as possible,” Dr. William Gillard recently urged Regina Nash, 28–among 700 asthma patients treated at the West Side clinic, which also has 500 diabetes patients and hundreds more with chronic ailments.

Those factors help explain the findings of a recent study in Chicago, released last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which shows that blacks, Hispanics and Asian-Pacific Islanders had higher rates of hospitalization for H1N1 during the swine flu outbreak last spring.

In the report, a map of confirmed cases in Chicago neighborhoods in May documents that the virus had its strongest presence in densely populated ethnic communities where health-care options are limited and long-term illnesses such as asthma or diabetes are prevalent.

But epidemiologists want to know if that is the only answer. This fall, they plan to dig deeper and examine whether the higher rates relate to specific ethnic makeups, said Dr. Julie Morita, medical director of the Chicago Department of Public Health, who co-wrote the four-page report.

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The study’s findings have contributed to concerns about how and where an expected H1N1 vaccine will be distributed when the federal government makes an estimated 45 million to 52 million doses available in October.

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In neighborhoods where not much is known about a virus that even the CDC is still struggling to understand, consultations about H1N1 can be slow going, Alvarez said. And the fact that many patients in areas with poor housing tend to move around makes it difficult to even have a consultation.

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[Editor’s Note: See also “Swine Flu Sends More Blacks, Hispanics to Hospital” here.]

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