Health Officials Bust Vaccination Myths in Alaska

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Editor's Note: For this year’s flu season, Alaska’s health officials are not worried about vaccine shortage, but they find vaccination myths in ethnic communities very challenging. New York-based NAM editor Anthony D. Advincula reports.

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — While health officials here assured the public that Alaskans will have adequate amounts of flu vaccine this year, misinformation about the vaccine that is crucial to prevention of flu-related illnesses remains widespread in ethnic communities.

At a roundtable discussion with ethnic media in downtown Anchorage last week, organized by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and New America Media (NAM), Gerri Yett, deputy immunization manager for the state of Alaska, said the vaccine shortage in public health clinics and hospitals that occurred last year is very unlikely to recur this flu season.

“Since spring, we’ve procured approximately 90,000 doses of vaccine to be distributed this year,” she said. Approximately 61,000 of that will go to children ages six months to 18 years, and about 29,000 of doses will be for the adult population, she added.

At the height of the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, many Alaskans—like millions of others across the U.S.— faced long waits to be immunized. Some of those who are considered high-risk, including young children, were turned away as the vaccine ran out.

For the 2010-11 flu season, health officials confirmed that the distribution of vaccine to public hospitals and clinics will begin on Sept. 13. And since the beginning of summer, Walmart, Walgreens and other local pharmacies here put up billboards advertising the availability of the vaccine.

But even as the vaccine becomes plentiful, health officials are concerned about the myths that continue to discourage many Alaskans from getting immunizations. These myths are most prevalent in ethnic communities.

Dr. Rosalyn Singleton, immunization consultant pediatrician for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, said the myths are pervasive on the Internet and are affecting Native Alaskans. Among the myths she cited: that the “swine flu” vaccine contains a computer chip or dangerous additives and that it’s untested and targets indigenous people.

“There’s a lot of misinformation, and it scares people,” she said.

Since flu is unpredictable, Singleton said vaccination is the best way to protect people from becoming ill and preventing the spread of viruses in homes, schools and public places. But the myths have become “very challenging” and detrimental to the state’s hospitalization rate, she added.

“Alaskan Native people in Anchorage had a hospitalization rate four times higher than the rate of the white population,” Singleton said. “Another ethnic minority that was affected was Asian Pacific Islanders, with a hospitalization rate of nearly three to four times that of the white population.”

Katherine Forest, an independent news producer whose family owns an Argentinean restaurant in midtown Anchorage, said that misinformation about the flu vaccine is also a common subject among Latino households, and has caused unfounded hysteria.

“They think that government officials put microchips in the vaccine because they want to exterminate the Hispanics in the country,” she said. “Their fear is [so] overpowering that they don’t want their children to be vaccinated.”

Forest said that vaccination myths reflect a growing mistrust in government. Although Alaska has become more diverse over the years, Forest said, she feels discrimination against minorities continues to be common.

“There was an incident where a mother was denied to get the vaccine because of her [Latino] last name,” she said, adding that Alaska’s public hospitals and clinics have no translators for immigrants who speak limited English.

Data collected in the 2000 Census found that of Anchorage’s 261,000 residents, 5.7 percent were Latino; 5.5 percent Asian; 5.8 percent black; and 7.28 percent American Indian and Native Alaskan. Whites made up about 72 percent of Anchorage’s population.

“In the Korean community, we have very limited sources of information [on flu vaccination],” said Mark Oh, owner of the Korean-language weekly Gyocharo. “For [the] younger generation, they get information from schools and they tell their parents about it.”

Because of language barriers, Oh said, many Korean immigrants in the state do not fully understand the information on vaccinations given by local health agencies. His newspaper translates and publishes some of the basic information posted on CDC's web site.

According to Alaska Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) data, the state had 15 flu-related fatalities in 2009. At least five of them were caused by the H1N1 virus.

For Singleton, the most effective way of educating the public about flu vaccination and correcting the myths about the vaccine is to post accurate information on the Internet and disseminate the truth via popular web sites such as YouTube.

“We just need to e-mail positive things about the vaccine and reiterate positive images,” she said. “The clearest message is the one that comes closer to home.”

Yett agreed.

“I try to personalize the message,” she said in an interview after the roundtable. “I told people that I got the vaccine and I vaccinated my children and grandchildren. By setting an example to others, it helps eliminate fears.”

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