Every year, the arrival of autumn brings with it familiar sights, smells, and sounds. We think about leaves changing color, cooler weather, football, Halloween, and seasonal foods flavored with apple or pumpkin. While it has also become commonplace, many people overlook the importance of getting their annual flu shot amid the excitement of fall festivity. However, without sufficient immunization your community is at high risk for flu transmission and the potential severe consequences. With the start of flu season in October, now is the perfect time to protect yourself and your community from the flu; head over to HealthMap today and find out where you can get your annual flu shot today!
Influenza, the virus that flu shots protect against, is one of many medical conditions individuals facing homelessness are at higher risk of acquiring. Already at diminished health due to the environmental insults of homelessness, these individuals also experience specific risk factors that increase their likelihood of suffering from influenza. First and foremost, the arrival of colder and wetter weather generally pushes most homeless individuals to seek the warmth of shelters. Despite the best attempts of shelters to maintain cleanliness, this type of housing quickly becomes crowded and unsanitary. As with school-children, close quarters enhance transmission of influenza via aerosol droplets. When one individual in a shelter has an influenza infection, they can easily spread it to other people. Additionally, some homeless individuals tend to travel throughout the community increasing their exposure to influenza viruses. When they stay at a shelter, they share this exposure with everyone else. Finally, the challenges of homelessness (e.g., finding food and shelter, exposure to the environment, fear of assault/robbery, etc.) are extremely stressful. This impairs the immune system’s ability to respond to insults, such as influenza. In combination, these factors explain the elevated risk of acquiring the flu that homeless individuals experience.
Despite this elevated risk, this medical need of homeless individuals often goes unattended. Shelters do their best to prevent transmission by promoting healthy behaviors (e.g., hand washing), disinfecting surfaces, and isolating infected individuals from other people. However, decreased access to and use of healthcare limits vaccination in this population. Here at Street Medicine Detroit we do our best to minimize the effects of flu season. This would not be possible without the generous funding provided by Alana’s Foundation. A Michigan-based non-profit organization run by volunteers and funded solely through donations, Alana’s Foundation was founded in the memory of Alana Yaksich who died of flu-related complications in February of 2003. Grieving for Alana and shocked at how few people knew the importance of flu vaccines, Alana’s family created her foundation to promote influenza vaccination. Alana’s Foundation promotes influenza education and provides financial and emotional support to people who have lost loved ones to influenza. Additionally, in partnership with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, they provide influenza grants for underserved populations to non-profits and colleges/universities.
Street Medicine Detroit has been lucky enough to receive some of these grants. Last flu season, aside from treating symptomatic patients, SMD provided free flu shots to patients we encountered on street runs or at NSO. Without Alana’s Foundation, we could not have provided 100 flu shots to a group of people who otherwise might not have received this vaccination. Additionally, thanks to generous funding from Alana’s Foundation, we will be doing the same again this year!
To find out more about influenza and flu season visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention website
Eric Walton, MSII, SMD Director of Communications