Poor Americans More Likely to Be Hospitalized with Flu

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Low-income Americans are more likely than their middle- and high-income counterparts to be hospitalized due to complications from the flu, according to a new study.

Results of the study were published in February 2016 in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Living in a more densely packed area with less access to routine medical care and lower vaccination rates put low income individuals at more risk of finding themselves in an intensive care unit, on a respirator, or even dying from the flu, the study concluded.

The rate of hospitalizations from the flu increases as the neighborhoods get poorer, according to the research. People living in the poorest neighborhoods are twice as at risk of hospitalization as the richest neighborhood’s occupants, regardless of skin color, race, or ethnicity.

In addition, when compared with people in rich areas people in the poorer neighborhoods are twice at risk of entering the ICU, being put on a respirator, or dying.

The key is to reduce the number of flu cases; vaccination efforts need to be widened to encompass the poorer neighborhoods. Vaccination rates in poor neighborhoods are lower than that of wealthy areas, although this does not entirely explain the disparity in hospitalizations.

Poorer neighborhoods tend to have a higher population density, meaning living situations may be crowded and people have closer contact with each other. This contact heightens the risk for contracting influenza.

People in poor areas also tend to have medical conditions that can increase the severity of the flu, such as asthma.

Access to and use of a regular physician is another factor. Lack of routine medical care contributes to the low vaccination rates and causes people to postpone a doctor’s visit until their condition is severe enough for a hospital visit.

Rather than waiting for a crisis situation to see a doctor, early treatment including antiviral medication, such as Tamiflu, can help reduce complications of the flu.

The researchers in the study analyzed data from 14 states and 27 million people collected over two flu seasons. For purposes of the study, “poorer neighborhoods” were defined at those in which at least 20 percent of occupants were below the federal poverty level.

People in these neighborhoods had twice the rate of hospitalization due to flu than people in other areas. These results were consistent even when researchers accounted for race, ethnicity, and age.

This is an important but not really surprising conclusion. Influenza requires people be close together to spread, so people living in closer quarters are naturally more likely to contract it.