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Guest Opinion. As a tribal citizen of the Cherokee Nation, I know firsthand how rich and cherished tribal cultures are - but, as with anything precious, our cultures' longevity depends on a concerted effort.

One dangerous risk facing our Tribal communities today is communicable disease, most notably influenza, also called the flu. This respiratory virus is incredibly contagious, causes mild to severe illness and can lead to serious complications or even death.

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While influenza cases dropped sharply during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic — a trend that experts agree is most likely attributed to increased masking and social distancing —the seasonal flu returned with a vengeance last year, resulting in a spike in cases impacting tribal communities. Leading epidemiologists believe there will be a surge in influenza cases again this year.

The uptick in positive influenza cases means it's vital for tribal members across the Indian Country to stay on top of their flu vaccinations.

AI/AN individuals are disproportionately affected by the flu.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), flu and pneumonia rank among the top 10 leading causes of death among AI/ANs, and Indian Health Service (IHS) studies show that AI/ANs are more likely to be hospitalized due to the flu when compared to the general U.S. population.

The more recent data from the CDC suggests that seasonal flu activity is increasing in most parts of the country, specifically in the South Central, Southwest and West Coast regions. These regions have the highest numbers of American Indian populations when compared to the rest of the country, further increasing the risk of tribal citizens contracting the flu and subsequent damaging complications.

There are numerous benefits to getting the flu vaccine.

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The flu vaccine helps protect you, your family and others in your community from contracting the flu and any related complications. Babies and young children, Tribal elders and those immuno-compromised with chronic health conditions are at greater risk of contracting and developing complications from the flu.

Research shows getting the flu vaccination reduces the severity of the illness in people who have been vaccinated but still get sick. Vaccination has been proven to reduce complications related to other medical conditions, such as heart attacks and diabetes.

Finally, increasing flu vaccinations in Tribal communities helps safeguard tribal cultures and preserve them for future generations. When you receive the seasonal flu vaccine, you're protecting more than yourself - you're protecting valued traditions, important history and culture bearers who carry so much knowledge for our tribal families and communities.

Flu vaccines are safe, effective and widely available. With limited exceptions, everyone six months and older should get the annual flu vaccine. Contact your local Indian Health Service Clinic, physician, or pharmacy as soon as possible to make an appointment for the yearly flu vaccine.

For our cultures to continue to thrive for generations to come, consider taking the next step toward prevention by staying up to date with your flu vaccination.

Tom Anderson is the executive director of theAssociation of American Indian Physicians, a national association headquartered in Oklahoma City, Okla.

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