Even though influenza lands more than 200,000 Americans in hospitals for flu-related complications each year, many people don’t opt for a flu shot. That’s the case for many African Americans. They are the least likely of any U.S. population group to get the seasonal flu vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

This is why retired NBA player Jamal Mashburn (formerly of the Miami Heat) and former Philadelphia Eagle Mike Quick recently joined Olympic gold medalist Vonetta Flowers as spokespersons for the American Lung Association’s “Faces of Influenza” campaign.

“Once when I played with the Dallas Mavericks, I was hospitalized with the flu,” Mashburn says. “It was a terrible thing to deal with. I was in the hospital for three to four days trying to get my body back. It was a tough deal because you never know how your body is going to respond to the [flu]. I was very weak.”

Mashburn vowed not to put himself in that situation again.

One of the reasons Mashburn made that vow is because influenza is a communicable disease that causes a host of unpleasant symptoms, such as chills, fever, sore throat, muscle pains, severe headache, coughing, weakness and fatigue.

The flu is a serious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that can have severe complications, including death, says Michael Shafe, MD, medical director for the Urgency Room in Kansas City, Missouri. “The unique flu season last year is a strong reminder of the seriousness of the disease and the devastating effects it can have even for healthy people,” Shafe says. “I have seen infants, elderly and even previously healthy patients who were infected by a family member who refused an immunization because they did not like shots.”

Former Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Mike Quick was a man who avoided injections and medicine unless he absolutely needed them. But at 32, after a severe bout of the flu landed Quick in the hospital for several days, he changed his mind about getting flu vaccinations.

“We are slow to move on health issues, especially a lot of African-American men,” Quick says. “We are not as fast to take care of our health. We take care of a lot of other things before we put ourselves first.”

One way to block potential flu infections is simple: Get vaccinated.
Two types of flu vaccines are available. One is a flu shot that contains deactivated virus and is approved for healthy people older than six months and for those with chronic medical conditions. The other is a nasal-spray version of the flu vaccine but made with active yet weakened influenza viruses that don’t cause the flu. This spray version is approved for use in healthy people ages 2 to 49, including women who are not pregnant.

But regardless of these vaccines’ flu-stopping power, they won’t work if no one gets them.

This is where parents can help, says Flowers, a former bobsledder, who, in 2002, became the first black athlete from any nation to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics.

“As a mom, I make sure my entire family gets vaccinated against influenza each year,” Flowers says. “When my boys were born, they were three months premature. My sons have been through so much in their lives already. I get them vaccinated every year because I know it’s something I can do to help safeguard their health.”

Although the CDC recommends that everyone get a flu shot each season, it’s particularly important for the following individuals: pregnant women, children younger than 5, people older than 50, people of any age with certain chronic medical conditions, and those who live with or care for those at high risk of flu complications.

Each year in the United States, influenza and its related complications result in an estimated 226,000 hospitalizations and tens of thousands of deaths. In addition, diabetes and asthma are two of the most prevalent conditions affecting African Americans, which put them at a higher risk of developing influenza-related complications.

But even though vaccination is the best way to help prevent influenza and its complications, what if you don’t want or can’t get a flu shot? No worries. You can still safeguard yourself and others this flu season.

As Shafe recommends: “Hygiene measures such as washing hands, covering coughs and sneezes and staying home from school or work when sick can be helpful in preventing the spread of disease.”

For more information about influenza, visit facesofinfluenza.com.