Learning valuable public health lessons from influenza vaccination

In response to low immunization rates in my community, I served on a task force to develop a community-based pilot to increase influenza vaccination. We worked in collaboration with the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Department for Aging, Visiting Nurse Services of New York (VNSNY) and a local church health ministry.

On a Sunday morning in late November (during the CDC’s National Influenza Vaccine Week) nearly 100 African-Americans received their flu shots, we also held informational talks to dispel myths and fears, made time for physician-led Q&A and served healthy refreshments throughout the day, anyone was welcome to attend. A few doctors and nurses also received their flu shots to demonstrate leadership.

We carried the message, “Flu shots are for the people you love. And for you. Flu shots save lives” with health alerts, announcements and relevant educational materials. Our success led to more expansive efforts.

A few years later when my community became the epicenter of the 2009 pandemic influenza A (H1N1) outbreak, I understood more clearly the significance of our unique efforts toward community immunity and health. In our neighborhood, there are many intergenerational families making vaccination important to protect those most vulnerable, the young and the elderly who often live in the same household. The outbreak began in nearby high school. The intensity of our local health department, leaders and communities working together is noteworthy. The outbreak took its natural, rapid and widespread course, but did not cause severe illness among those confirmed with 2009 H1N1 influenza or with influenza-like illness. While there were sharp increases in emergency department visits as well as overwhelming public concern local health care providers were able to manage the outbreak.

Seasonal influenza and H1N1 are different viruses — the 2011 influenza vaccine includes protection against H1N1 along other influenza strains.  It seems that every neighborhood in New York City now has multiple options to a receive flu shot and the public health messages abound locally and nationally because it’s important.

As a physician-in-training, I’ve learned valuable lessons from this experience about public health.

Katherine Ellington is a medical student who blogs at World House Medicine.

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