Dr. Mana Lumumba-Kasongo: 'There is no reason to fear this vaccination'
It may not have been on your calendar, but by now most people know that the official first day of flu season started on October 4. Usually, there's just a subtle reminder in your doctor's office, but this year everyone is talking about the dreaded H1N1 virus (previously known as swine flu). Mostly because there has been more flu activity documented across the country than in previous years. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius stated that "minority communities are no more or less at risk for H1N1 or any other flu than any other community." However, she admits that this flu is unpredictable and has her department working overtime to convince the American public that both the seasonal flu shot and H1N1 vaccine are essential acts of defense. ESSENCE.com spoke to Dr. Mana Lumumba-Kasongo, an emergency medicine physician in Albany, Georgia, who is the first to encounter those sick from H1N1. Dr. Lumumba-Kasongo believes getting both shots could mean skipping a trip to her ER and strongly advocates that Black women take this situation seriously.
ESSENCE.COM: Why would you advocate getting the H1N1 vaccine?
DR. MANA LUMUMBA-KASONGO: If you look at the work that the CDC is doing, it shows that while the H1N1 flu is actually less virulent than the actual seasonal flu, it can actually spread a lot further. They are predicting that up 35 percent of the population could get a strain of this. Just think about what a toll this would take on whole communities and kids staying out of school, I would strongly suggest that people look into getting the vaccination. As an emergency room physician, I'm in the front line of attack, seeing people at their sickest so it's very important to me, particularly in a time when we're talking about health reform and millions of people without insurance.
ESSENCE.COM: One of the main concerns, especially in the African-American community is whether or not this H1N1 vaccine is safe and can you take it with other medications?
LUMUMBA-KASONGO: The side-effects that people are generally afraid of are mostly mild including soreness at the injection site, perhaps a headache, fever or body aches. People shouldn't refuse to take the vaccination because of a fear of the more severe side effects which are extremely low in occurrence. There is no reason to fear this vaccination. I believe the benefits outweigh the risks and people who are on other medications for chronic illnesses should be the primary ones getting the vaccine.
ESSENCE.COM: Are African-American's particularly at risk for that very reason?
LUMUMBA-KASONGO: We tend to get hit with chronic illnesses like diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure, and HIV/AIDS and these people are the ones who will get hit hardest by the flu, whether seasonal flu or H1N1. We also understand parents are concerned but the reason why children have received the H1N1 nasal spray version of the vaccine first is because that's where the virus seems to be spreading most quickly. We want to prevent mass exodus from schools across the country because if you have it, you could feel badly up to a week and that's a significant amount of days for any child to miss.
ESSENCE.COM: How can health agencies get the message across to the Black community that we really should consider taking the vaccine?
LUMUMBA-KASONGO: Much of the information so far has been delivered over the internet and as we know, many African-Americans still don't have access to that. It has to be through the community. We need to have a direct line to our community leaders who are in touch with the Department of Health and Human Services almost on a daily basis because we're getting more information every day.
ESSENCE.COM: While the H1N1 vaccine isn't readily available just yet, should people have any concerns about taking the seasonal flu shot?
LUMUMBA-KASONGO: Not at all. The seasonal flu can sometimes be considered more deadly than the Swine flu in the same groups that are always at risk which include children under the age of five, people over the age of 55, and people with chronic conditions. The thing that is different with H1N1 is that it does seem to attack young kids and young adults more than the seasonal flu.
For more information on the H1N1 flue including an evaluation guide and flu myths and facts, go to the U.S. Department of Human and Health Services one-stop resource at flu.gov.
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If one thing can be said about actress Joy Bryant it's that she always comes back home. The star of "Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins" and "Antwone Fisher" is returning to her old South Bronx neighborhood in New York for the first ever Uptown Girl Power Benefit, which will help raise funds for public art projects themed to empower young women. Bryant is very open about her own meager beginnings--being born to a mother who was just 15 years old and reared by her grandmother on welfare--she can relate to what many of these young women are facing today. She talks to ESSENCE.com about joining her fellow Bronxite, Kerry Washington, and environmental leader Majora Carter tonight for this project, the goal of it and why her past never stopped her from dreaming big.
ESSENCE.COM: How did you get involved in the Uptown Girl project?
JOY BRYANT: I've been reading about her and following her and admiring the work that she's done. I was basically stalking her [laughs] and I finally got to meet her earlier this year. She's an amazing woman and even before knowing her, I looked up to her. We became friends and she asked me to come down and introduce her at a speech during Earth Day in Washington, D.C. She asked me to participate in the Uptown Girl and I was honored to be a part of it.
ESSENCE.COM: We know that young women in the Bronx and other urban communities face teen pregnancy, high dropout rates and issues of domestic abuse. How did you subside all of that and how do you teach these girls to do the same?
BRYANT: It helped that I had my grandmother. I grew up not very far from where the event will be taking place, but my grandmother always stressed to me that, regardless of the fact that I was a poor, Black child from the Bronx, I was never to use that as an excuse for me not to dream big and go out and get the things that I really wanted in life. In order for me to change the circumstance of which I was born into, I had to do well in school because that was the thing that was going to liberate me. That's how I was able to get in the A Better Chance program, which led me to get a scholarship to the Westminster school, graduated, went to Yale for two years and here I am. It all goes back to having that positive influence in your life.
ESSENCE.COM: Why is it important for you to come back home to the Bronx and give back to this program?
BRYANT: The least I can do is give back and share my story with young women who are growing up. I've been blessed with so many opportunities, but at the end of the day, if I can do it, then they can do it. These girls are bombarded by negative images all around them. Even if it's just one girl who looks at these murals and gets inspired or empowered, or a boost in her spirit, then I know we've changed the world.