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Detroit Proper: The 'Black Flu' Myth

Desiree Cooper explores why African-Americans are reluctant to get the flu vaccination.

You may have heard of the swine flu, the avian flu and the Spanish flu. But have you ever heard of the black flu? That's the flu that decimates the black community because so many African-Americans are afraid to get the flu shot.

I haven't heard of the black flu, either, although I keep waiting for it to be part of the next science fiction movie or, heaven forbid, a prediction for the future. That's because African-Americans seem to have a particular skepticism against the flu shot, which is mired in myth and superstition.

To be honest, the flu shot won't win a popularity contest in any circle. According to the Centers for Disease Control, only 47 percent of white adults get the flu vaccine, compared to 41 percent of African-Americans. Whites don't get the shot because they don't see the flu as a "big deal," according to the journal Risk Analysis. This is a perception that may be challenged by the seriousness of this flu season, which runs from October to May.

African-Americans don't get the flu shot for a different reason. They understand that the flu is serious, but they'd rather take their chances with the illness than the vaccine. They simply don't trust the shot itself. We've heard it all before: The flu shot makes you sick. The flu shot is made with dangerous chemicals. The government is just trying to kill black people.

First things first. The shot does not give you the flu. It can make your arm really sore, which, as an inoculation wimp, I can attest to. But there is no live flu virus in the shot, so it can't transmit the flu. If you get sick after getting the shot, you may have already been infected, or you got a flu strain that was not prevented by that specific shot. The flu virus transforms quickly, impacting the effectiveness of each season's vaccine. But even if it's not a perfect match, the vaccine can reduce the length and severity of the illness should you get infected.

Does the shot have dangerous ingredients? No. It is made with a preservative that contains a very low level of mercury that does not threaten your health. If you don't want that in your shot, you can ask for one that doesn't have the preservative. The vaccine also has trace amounts of egg protein, so those who have allergies to eggs should consult their doctors first. People who have a rare pre-existing condition called Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS) probably shouldn't take it. The CDC notes that the GBS risk is about 1 or 2 additional cases per million people vaccinated – significantly lower than the risk of severe complications from the flu itself.

Is the government trying to kill black people? The answer to that question is, "It's complicated." Blacks are not being irrational in their distrust of the medical industrial complex. Enslaved black women were experimented upon without anesthesia by the white South Carolina physician J. Marion Sims, the "father of modern gynecology." Black bodies were robbed from their graves and sold to universities for research and medical training. In the notorious Tuskegee experiment, the government withheld treatment from poor men with syphilis while pretending to treat them for "bad blood." They did this without the knowledge of the victims in order to study the course of the untreated disease – and continued withholding care long after effective treatments became available. Victims of the crack epidemic that ravaged the black community were given life sentences instead of medical care, while the mostly white victims of the opioid epidemic have been offered a hospital bed instead of a prison cell. I could go on.

While African-American skepticism regarding institutionalized medicine is well-earned, we may be throwing out our babies (and senior citizens and college students) with the bathwater. None of us remember the 1918 Detroit flu epidemic that swamped hospitals with nearly 30,000 cases and 1,688 fatalities. Schools were closed and public gatherings banned in order to stop the flu from spreading, and 1,600 Detroit Public Schools teachers volunteered to go door-to-door to discover families in need of medical attention. Back then, there was no flu vaccine available to stop the disease from ravaging our city. That's no longer an excuse.

By late February, more than 1,000 Michiganders had contracted the flu, claiming two children's lives. It's time to separate paranoia from reality. People die from the flu. A simple shot may help ensure that it's not you.

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