Ethnic Disparities in Flu Vaccine Coverage

Vaccine uptake has been a front-page issue over the past year, given the epidemic levels of whooping cough in some U.S. states and the upsurge of measles cases in Europe that first caused a public health stir in 2011.

There is no single definitive explanation why so many individuals are opting out of immunizations, however a new study released by the Canadian Medical Association Journal is tackling the issue with a different approach: analyzing ethnicity to assess disparities in influenza vaccine coverage.

Canadian researchers discovered a marked difference in flu immunization rates among 12 different ethnic groups, with black and white Canadians being least likely to get vaccinated. On the other hand, Asian minorities, specifically Filipino, Japanese and Chinese, had much higher vaccination rates.

However, it is not yet entirely clear what the significance of this research study actually is. “Variations in coverage levels persisted even after adjusting for other determinants of vaccine uptake,” writes lead author Susan Quach and fellow authors, “which suggests that there may be unique barriers and misconceptions influencing these groups differently.”

A previous study conducted in the United Kingdom on the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine revealed similar findings and suggested exposure to anti-vaccination messages in the media as a potential factor in avoiding immunizations. Certain ethnic groups may be shielded from this media coverage due to language barriers and varying levels of integration into British society.

While this study cannot pinpoint what other social, cultural, and demographic characteristics of each ethnic group might be influential in either promoting or opposing vaccine uptake, it does lay a foundation for future research on these issues.

In a related commentary, Bradford Gessner, the scientific director of Agence de Médecine Préventive, notes that the beliefs and influences of the larger community likely drive the decision to vaccinate. Ethnicity alone is not a defining factor. For example, Asian minorities might have more trust in the Canadian health care system and are therefore more likely to follow recommendations from public health authorities.

The study’s authors conclude with a similar sentiment. “Our findings should not understate the importance of tackling issues of sociodemographics and access to health care that influence uptake and extend across all ethnic groups in Canada,” emphasizes Quach, et al.

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