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H1N1 ads urge Native Americans to get vaccine

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 13 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

Native Americans have a mortality rate from the H1N1 virus that's about four times higher than the general population but lag behind the rest of the U.S. in getting vaccinated. As such, a new public service campaign is hoping to turn that around.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services unveiled two new public service announcement (PSA) campaigns Tuesday afternoon urging American Indians and Alaska Natives to get vaccinated against the H1N1 flu.

"The virus has hit Indian country very hard," Secretary Kathleen Sebelius of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said during a nationwide telephone press conference. "They (Native Americans) are at greater risk from getting seriously ill from the flu."

The reason is that Native Americans tend to have more underlying health issues, such as diabetes, heart problems and asthma.

Dr. Yvette Roubideaux, director of the Indian Health Service, confirmed that there have been some outreach vaccination programs to Native Americans. For example, the Navajos have had some community clinics.

"It is a problem," Forrest S. Cuch, executive director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, said of getting Utah's often remote Native American population vaccinated.

Roubideaux said outreaches to tribal communities started last spring. Biweekly telephone calls are also made to tribal leaders.

According to U.S. Census figures from 2000, Utah is home to about 30,000 Native Americans, or about 1.3 percent of the total population.

American Cherokee actor Wes Studi is the key voice in the new PSA radio and TV announcements. He starred in "Dances With Wolves," "The Last of the Mohicans" and "Geronimo: An American Legend."

Five more such commercials are planned.

Sebelius said so far about 60 million Americans have received H1N1 vaccinations. However, the virus has sickened 40 million Americans, hospitalized 200,000 and killed and estimated 10,000 people.

"There is plenty of vaccine," she stressed, noting that 136 million doses have been made available thus far. "The country may see more flu in the next couple of months."

In Utah about 20 percent of the population has been vaccinated so far.

Sebelius said the vaccine is safe and is the best means to protect the public. She also said the slowdown of cases recently also opens a window of opportunity for more vaccinations.

"Flu is really an unpredictable disease," Roubideaux said.

Dr. Ralph T. Bryan, senior tribal liaison for Science and Public Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Studi was very generous with his time in helping produce the PSAs.

This week is also National Influenza Vaccination Week.

For more information, or to access the new PSAs, go to www.flu.gov.

e-mail: lynn@desnews.com

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