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The Flu Hits Harder in Poorer Neighborhoods

But there's a solution: the annual flu vaccine.
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(Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

(Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

For a variety of reasons, those on the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder are more likely to suffer from certain illnesses, including depression, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Now here's another ailment to add to the list: Americans living in poorer neighborhoods are almost twice as likely to have severe complications from the flu than those living in richer neighborhoods, according to a new analysis.

Most of us periodically catch and subsequently get over the flu with no problems. But for some folks, especially the elderly, a flu infection can be more serious. The flu causes up to 27,000 deaths and up to 624,000 hospitalizations every year in America. The new numbers on the flu's disproportional impact on low-income neighborhoods suggest public-health organizations should step up their annual flu-vaccine campaigns in such communities, the study authors write in their report, published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Getting the yearly vaccine doesn't guarantee a person won't have severe flu, but it does reduce the risk of that happening.

The flu causes up to 27,000 deaths and up to 624,000 hospitalizations every year in America.

To conduct their analysis, a team of researchers from various American universities, health departments, and the CDC collected data about flu patients from hospitals in 14 states. The data included the patients' home addresses, but it didn't reveal their income level, so the team split the data up by the poverty level of the patients' neighborhoods instead. They then compared flu hospitalization rates in different neighborhoods.

The neighborhood-based patterns the researchers found showed up regardless of the patients' age or race. The researchers also saw that the pattern held for other indicators of severe flu—for example, whether people went into intensive care, had to be hooked up to a mechanical ventilator, or died at the hospital, as a result of their flu. For all of these indicators, people from neighborhoods where at least one in five households fall below the poverty line were nearly twice as likely to suffer than people from neighborhoods where one in 20 households or fewer are impoverished.

These numbers alone can't tell us why Americans in low-income neighborhoods are more likely to have terrible flu complications, but the study authors had a few hypotheses. One is obvious: Because lower-income individuals are more likely to experience other health conditions, they may be less able to fight off a flu virus. Another hypothesis is that because poorer neighborhoods are more crowded, people might be more likely to catch a bad flu from someone nearby.


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