WASHINGTON -- Black and Hispanic senior citizens are significantly less likely than elderly whites to receive vaccinations against the flu and pneumonia, the government said Wednesday, launching an effort to figure out why and fix it.
It's one of many racial disparities in health and health care. Federal officials are hoping to bring attention to the issue as a whole while attacking specific areas with a variety of programs.
Vaccines for the flu must be given every year to assure protection from the disease, while vaccines against pneumonia are good for many years.
In 2000, 67 percent of white Americans over age 65 had received influenza vaccines, compared with just 48 percent of black seniors and 56 percent of Hispanic seniors.
The gap is even wider for the pneumoncoccal vaccination, which protects against pneumonia. Fifty-seven percent of elderly whites had received the shot, vs. 31 percent of black seniors and 30 percent of Hispanics.
Each year, about 20,000 Americans die from flu-related illness, while pneumonia kills another 6,000 to 7,000 people, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
The nation spends $10 billion to get immunizations delivered, said Claude Allen, deputy secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. "However, we are doing much better treating elderly whites than their counterparts," he said.
The chosen communities have not completed their plans for attacking the problem, but they all will incorporate people across the community, including health insurance companies, civic groups and local doctors, Allen said.
Grants ranging between $250,000 and $400,000 are going to Rochester, N.Y.; Chicago; Milwaukee; San Antonio, Texas, and a coalition of rural communities in Mississippi.
The initiative was unveiled as officials presented annual data on immunizations for all ages, part of their National Immunization Awareness Month program. The CDC reported that immunizations among children, ages 19 to 35 months, were at an all-time high last year, with 77 percent receiving the recommended shots.
A total of 16 to 20 shots, aimed at 11 preventable diseases, are now recommended for kids before they reach age 2.
CDC has conducted focus groups with whites, blacks and Hispanics to figure out why minorities are less likely to get immunized.
There were a few insights: some Hispanics said they would rather rely on home remedies over the flu shot; both blacks and Hispanics suspected the shot is not safe.
In addition, some blacks voiced distrust of the medical system, citing an infamous Tuskegee Institute study from 1932 to 1972. In it, black men with syphilis were left untreated.
"I think black men as a whole have a distrust for good reasons," said a black man in one of the focus groups. "I know that we live in modern times and I know we should probably trust, but me personally, I can't forget it."
Allen said that the projects will focus on communicating health information through people who patients trust, such as their own doctors.
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