As Flu Season Heats Up in Vegas, Health Officials Call for Vaccinations

As Flu Season Heats Up in Vegas, Health Officials Call for Vaccinations

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LAS VEGAS—Jim Zhang, a Chinese immigrant who lives just outside the tourist-laden Las Vegas strip and describes himself as “stubborn," does not like to visit the doctor. Neither does he choose to receive a seasonal flu or H1N1 vaccine, saying he would only consider getting the flu shot if his symptoms became serious.

"If I just have a cold or am not feeling well, I just sleep it off," said Zhang, 53, who attended a press briefing with ethnic media here earlier this month. “I’d just wait at home for a few days until my fever is gone and I feel much better.”

Zhang’s apprehension around flu vaccination is not uncommon in ethnic and immigrant communities in the Las Vegas area, and language could be one of the reasons.

According to Dr. Wen Guo, who integrates eastern and western medicine into her Las Vegas medical practice, there is a tendency among Chinese people to hold off seeking medical help when they have flu-like symptoms because the Mandarin words for cold and flu are similar.

“There is only one word, ‘gan-mao,' that is used for both colds and flu in the Chinese language,” she said. “We lump them together.”

For example, a regular headache can only be distinguished from a flu-like headache by adding a superlative like “zhung gan-mao," which means “major headache” when translated to English.

If medical authorities like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) hope to persuade Chinese immigrants to get vaccinated, they must understand the language phenomenon, Guo said.

“This is key to addressing flu in our community,” she said.

Despite Nevada’s bleak economy, the influx of Chinese immigrants to Las Vegas continues. The city’s Chinatown district has expanded from three blocks to 3.5 square miles over the last decade.

According to a 2007 University of Southern California-Annenberg study, of the approximately 137,000 Asians in the Las Vegas metropolitan area, 14 percent are Chinese and Taiwanese. Filipinos are the largest group, comprising 51 percent of the Asian population.

Community leaders, however, believe that the region's the immigrant population may be twice as large as the most recent Census figures or independent studies have shown.

While language may not be an issue for Filipinos, Dr. Ben Calderon, president of the Philippine Medical Association, said that preventing flu in the Filipino community still poses a big challenge.

“Filipinos get a flu shot only if their Filipino doctor told them to do so,” he said in an interview after the press briefing. “It’s not that they don’t trust the government agencies. They just take them as a secondary source, or as a validation of what the Filipino doctor would tell them.”

The problem, Calderon added, is that the Filipino population in Las Vegas has grown dramatically and there are not enough Filipino doctors to meet the demand.

“In my own practice, I get more than 1,000 patients a month, and more than 90 percent of them are Filipinos,” Calderon said.

Acknowledging the vaccination concerns in ethnic communities, Veronica Morata-Nichols, immunization program manager for the Southern Nevada Health District, said that having medical practitioners who know the language and culture is vital to flu prevention.

“When we send Chinese, Latino or Filipino nurses to do vaccination in their own communities, we find it always effective. They’re being received very well,” she said.

In 2009, Nevada hospitalization rates related to seasonal flu and H1N1 varied greatly between ethnic groups. According to Capt. Raymond A. Strikas, a medical officer at the U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services (DHHS), Latinos and Native Americans had hospitalization rates 30 percent higher than other ethnic groups.

“This might be also due to preconditions such as diabetes and heart ailments,” he said.

Strikas noted that in the upcoming 2010-11 flu season, the U.S. might see one or more new virus strains, making vaccinations all the more important.

“If you got the vaccine last year, you definitely need to get another because you may get a different strain this year,” he said. “The vaccine may not be perfect… but it would protect you. The odds are in your favor.”

For Zhang, the question ultimately comes down to making a smart business decision.

“If I take off from work because I’m not feeling well, I lose a lot of money,” he said. “But if I get the flu shot, I will only spend about $18 and I will be healthier, too.”

This article, the third in a series, was written as part of the national briefings with ethnic media sponsored by the Academy for Educational Development (AED).