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Study: Black, Hispanic seniors in U.S. far less likely to get flu vaccine each year

Older Black and Hispanic people in the U.S. are less likely to be vaccinated against the flu than older White and Asian people, a new study has found. Photo by marcolohpsoares/Pixabay
Older Black and Hispanic people in the U.S. are less likely to be vaccinated against the flu than older White and Asian people, a new study has found. Photo by marcolohpsoares/Pixabay

Feb. 18 (UPI) -- Less than one-third of Black and Hispanic seniors in the United States received the flu vaccine in the 2015-16 winter season, according to a study published Thursday by Lancet Healthy Longevity.

This compares to nearly half of all White and Asian seniors being vaccinated against the flu in winter 2015-16, the most recent year for which data was available, researchers reported.

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Across all older adults covered by Medicare, the government-run health insurance provider for seniors, 48% received any form of flu vaccine during that year's flu season.

The lower vaccination rates among some people of color highlight race-based disparities in access to healthcare in general, and vaccination services in particular, researchers said.

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"Our finding ... rules out the often-cited justifications for inequities in vaccine uptake, such as higher levels of vaccine hesitancy and distrust of public institutions among minority groups," study co-author Salah Mahmud said in a press release.

"Rather, our study points to deeply rooted structural deficits that systematically hamper access to influenza vaccination, which may be have serious implications for our ability to effectively roll out the COVID-19 vaccination program," said Mahmud, a professor of community health sciences and pharmacy at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada.

This year, the annual flu shot was recommended for all people in the United States due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In normal flu seasons, vaccination rates are generally less than 50% of the total population, based on agency estimates.

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For this study, Mahmud and his colleagues reviewed vaccination records for roughly 26.5 million Medicare beneficiaries age 65 and older in the United States during the 2015-16 flu season.

Among Medicare beneficiaries, 29% of those who identified as Hispanic and just under 33% of those who identified as Black received the annual shot.

Forty-eight percent of Asian beneficiaries and 49% of White beneficiaries were vaccinated against the flu.

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Even among those vaccinated, there were racial and ethnic inequities in access to the high-dose flu shot, which is recommended for people older than 65 because of their increased risk for severe illness from the virus.

Nearly 54% of White seniors received the high-dose flu shot compared with 38% Hispanic seniors, 41% Black seniors and 40% of Asian seniors.

These inequities persisted after accounting for region, income, chronic health conditions and patterns of healthcare use among beneficiaries included in the analysis, the researchers said.

Racial and ethnic minorities were up to 32% less likely to receive the high-dose vaccine compared to White people.

The findings point to "systemic failings" that must be addressed to increase vaccine uptake, particularly for COVID-19, which has disproportionately affected Black Americans and other minorities, the researchers said.

"These findings are alarming because they point to a level of disparity that can hamper efforts to reduce the burden not just of flu, but for other vaccine-preventable diseases," study co-author Laura Lee Hall said.

While there is a variety of factors that figure in to why people of color may face more challenges in terms of accessing healthcare, "these factors are themselves the results of deeply ingrained discrimination and implicit bias in the health system and broader society," said Hall, president of the National Minority Quality Forum's Center for Sustainable Health Care Quality and Equity.

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