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PUEBLO, Colo. – Sixty-nine people in Colorado have died of H1N1, the “swine flu” virus, but health department officials don’t know how many of the victims were black or Latino.
That’s because epidemiologists at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment don’t track H1N1 deaths by race or ethnicity.
In the town of Pueblo, where nearly half of the 100,000 residents are Latino, Hispanic media greeted that news with frustration, but not surprise. The government’s failure to note the ethnicity of those who die from the flu, they said, represents the pattern and practice of a public health establishment that’s distant from the community it serves.
At a meeting with officials from the local health department, members of the Hispanic media said Spanish-speakers were not getting information about the dangers of the virus, how to protect themselves from it, or where to get vaccinated.
When the H1N1 virus broke out last year, the Pueblo City-County Health Department was so busy trying to deal with the emergency that it wasn’t able to tailor the message to different groups, according to Jennifer Ludwig, associate director of disease prevention and emergency preparedness. “We were just trying to get information out to the masses,” Ludwig said.
The problem, according to agency spokesperson Sarah Bruestle, is that they were targeting “the old idea” of what is mainstream, and were leaving out Spanish-speakers.
Latinos make up 44 percent of Pueblo’s population according to the 2000 Census, yet almost no information about H1N1 appeared in local Spanish-language media.
“We have so many immigrants here who do not read or speak English,” said Randall Muñiz of the bilingual newspaper Hispania News in Colorado Springs. “I have not seen this out there in Spanish.”
Locally, two residents of Pueblo died and 72 were hospitalized due to H1N1 since September, according to Dr. Christine Nevin-Woods of the local health department.
“Whenever someone says it wasn’t a big deal, I say, ‘It was, for the families of the people who died.’ I often think what I could have done to prevent that,” said Nevin-Woods.
The state health department has tracked 69 deaths caused by H1N1 in Colorado. Twelve were children and 57 were adults.
But when asked how many Latinos had died of the virus in Colorado, Nevin-Woods said the state health department had not provided her with that information. State health officials told New America Media this was because their epidemiologists did not track H1N1 deaths by race or ethnicity.
“Looking back retrospectively, it would have been very valuable data to collect,” said Karen Gieseker, managing director for influenza surveillance, a contractor for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “It just was not one that hit the top of our priority list as we were trying to pull a lot of different surveillance systems together very quickly.”
Colorado does not track H1N1 hospitalizations by ethnicity either: Hospitals have the option of entering race and ethnicity data, Gieseker said, but that information is not mandated by the state health department.
State health officials have not discussed whether they will track this information in the future, she says. “We would have to go back and re-contact all the hospitals, coroners,” and others who come into contact with people who died from the flu.
Even then, “it may not be there,” she said.
The omission did not go unnoticed by local Hispanic media, who report on health issues like H1N1 in the context of their own community. “We don’t have the information in Spanish,” Muñiz said to Pueblo health department officials, “and the only way we can get true and accurate information that pertains to Hispanics is from you.”
Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that hospitalization rates among minority groups have been more than double those of whites, but that analysis doesn’t include information from states like Colorado, which have failed to track the impact of H1N1 by race and ethnicity.
In the meantime, Hispanic media say the message about how to prevent the virus needs to get out to their audiences.
The best way to reach Latinos is through a customized approach in their own language, according to Dr. Sergio Murillo Herrera, who practices family medicine and obstetrics at the Comprehensive Family Care Center.
“When I enter a room and the person is Spanish-speaking only, and I speak Spanish, you should see their face,” Murillo said. “It’s relief. They think, ‘I can finally express my symptoms, talk to somebody, trust somebody.’”
Muñiz suggested taking the message to the community by organizing vaccination fairs at the local community centers like El Centro del Quinto Sol, and providing information through local churches like Our Lady of Mount Carmel that offer mass in Spanish.
Spanish-speaking doctors could also write a regular column for the Hispanic press, and be interviewed on various health topics for Spanish-language radio, said Sandy Close, executive director of New America Media, which organized the news briefing as part of the Take the Lead campaign sponsored by the American Institutes for Research (AIR).
Dr. Murillo agreed to appear on the local Spanish-language radio to provide ongoing information to the Latino community.
Hispanic media said information about how the virus has impacted Latinos and African Americans could be critical to the health of those communities.
For Pablo Mora, editor of the bilingual bimonthly newspaper Caminos de Southern Colorado, and metro editor of the English-language daily The Pueblo Chieftain, the health of the Latino community depends on their access to information.
“There is a health crisis,” Mora said, “but it’s not just H1N1 – it’s diabetes, it's HIV. We're not getting the message out.”