Study: Flu severity risk in U.S. higher among Black people, young children of color

Black people with the flu have a more than two-fold higher risk for hospitalization and admission to the intensive care unit than White people, according to a new study. File&nbsp;Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | <a href="/News_Photos/lp/9b8bec4aafeaa34f12a86c0df5768b31/" target="_blank">License Photo</a>
Black people with the flu have a more than two-fold higher risk for hospitalization and admission to the intensive care unit than White people, according to a new study. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo

Aug. 24 (UPI) -- People of color in the United States are more likely to need hospital and intensive care unit treatment for the flu than White people, an analysis published Tuesday by JAMA Network Open found.

Among adults age 50 to 64, Black people had a more than two-fold higher risk for hospitalization and admission to the intensive care unit than White people, the data showed.


Among those age 18 to 49, American Indian and Alaska Natives were nearly twice as likely as White people to require hospital or ICU care for the seasonal virus, the researchers said.

In addition, Black, Hispanic and American Indian and Alaska Native children age 4 and younger were up to four times more likely to need hospital or ICU treatment.

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"There were observable racial and ethnic disparities in influenza-associated hospitalization, ICU admission and in-hospital death across the 10 influenza seasons examined in the study," said CDC health communications spokesman Robert Denty.


"Age-adjusted rates of all three outcomes were highest for non-Hispanic-Black people," said Denty, who works in the agency's influenza division but was not involved in the research.

The findings echo those of recent reports regarding racial disparities in the risk for severe illness from COVID-19 within communities of color in the United States, the researchers said.

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"These data further demonstrate the health disparities we are currently witnessing [with the pandemic]," infectious disease specialist Dr. David J. Cennimo told UPI in an email.

"Currently, there is no biological or genetic explanation [for] these differences," said Cennimo, associate chief of staff for education at the VA New Jersey Health Care System, who was not part of the study led by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers.

The findings are based on a review of data on more than 113,000 flu hospitalizations in the United States between 2009 and 2019, before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Each year, up to 800,000 people across the country are hospitalized due to the seasonal virus, and as many as 60,000 die from it, according to CDC data.

However, the 2020-21 winter season saw a dramatic drop in cases of and deaths from the flu, likely due to measures put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19, such as mask wearing and social distancing, based on estimates from the CDC released in July.


Among the more than 113,000 flu hospitalizations included in this analysis, nearly 35,000 involved adults age 75 and older, and more than 61,000 were women.

More than 70,000 of the patients were White, but nearly 25,000, or 22%, were Black and about 1% were American Indian or Alaska Native, according to the researchers.

Black Americans make up just over 13% of the national population, based on U.S. census figures.

Although flu-related deaths among adults were similar across all racial and ethnic groups, children of color age 4 and younger were more likely to die from the seasonal virus than White children, the researchers said.

Compared with White children, Hispanic American and Black American children had a three-fold higher risk for death from the flu, while Asian or Pacific Islander children had a more than four-fold higher risk, the data showed.

"I fully intend to use these data to strengthen the call for all members of our marginalized communities to receive flu vaccine," Cennimo said.

"Sadly, these findings are not surprising [because] there are any number of studies that can predict a patient's overall health based on ZIP Code, etc.," he said.

Denty said CDC has been engaging partners and customizing outreach programs for minority communities, as well as increasing funding for state programs, to increase vaccination rates in the upcoming flu season, even as he noted that more research is needed to fix the situation.


"Prior studies have shown that living in higher-poverty areas and household crowding were associated with higher rates of flu, [though] more research is needed in this area to better understand drivers of this inequality," Denty added.

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