'Wizards of Waverly' Maria Canals Encourages Latinos to Get Flu Shot

Maria Canals Barrera gets vaccinated in time for flu season.

Maria Canals Barrera gets vaccinated in time for flu season.  (AP)

Cuban-American actress Maria Canals Barrera always keeps a watchful eye on her wizards in training, but when she’s not playing magical mama Theresa Russo in Disney's “Wizards of Waverly Place,” the real-life mother plays modern-day superhero by educating the Hispanic community about a serious disease. 

This year, the self-proclaimed “proud Latina” is encouraging families to stay healthy by participating in “Rostros de la Gripe,” a seven-year campaign from the American Lung Association advocating for Latinos to obtain their annual flu shots.

“When I learned about how serious the flu can be and how many deaths it can cause, it really impacted me, especially because I have two children, a 9-year-old and a 7-year-old," explains Barrera. “As a mom, I realized how important it is to educate yourself about the flu and how there’s a high number of Latin-Americans not getting their shots. I wanted to be part of this campaign and spread the word.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only 40 percent of Latinos received their shot last season. Dr. Perez-Fernandez from the American Lung Association believes this rate is alarmingly low, especially because they are considered at high risk of developing flu-related complications due to suffering from specific chronic conditions, like asthma and diabetes. 

Not only does the CDC reports that up to 9.5 million Hispanic-Americans will get the flu in an average year, there are 9 million with diabetes, making them increasingly prone to infection.

“I think that we, as Latinos are very traditional, especially when it comes to using home remedies, which is something I always see in patients,” says Dr. Perez-Fernandez. “Because of this, we don’t really follow through recommendations given by doctors. And that’s why the American Lung Association was so concerned and they prepared this campaign, especially for the Spanish-speaking population in the U.S., to demonstrate the benefits of the vaccine.”

Barrera, who laughs about remembering childhood memories involving “cure-alls,” like tea and soup, agrees with Dr. Perez-Fernandez’s concern.

“As Latinos, we’re more about sticking it out, which is very admirable, especially because it reflects on our work ethic. I thought the flu was just a really bad cold, but it's a virus that attacks your lungs. It can be very painful and keep you in bed for weeks. But there’s a simple, effective, and safe shot that’s easily available.”

With holiday season on its way, Latinos are expected to host familial reunions and travel to their native countries, making them more susceptible to the highly contagious virus. While some may not have health insurance, Dr. Perez-Fernandez says numerous locations, including local health fairs and even selected supermarkets, are now providing the vaccine. And contrary to popular belief, the shot itself cannot cause the flu.

“It’s been demonstrated that the flu shot does not cause the flu,” stresses Dr. Perez-Fernandez. “There are a lot of people who get the shot when they’re already infected, which is two to three weeks too late. The winter months are when people get the sickest, so you should get it as soon as possible. It’s so safe you can get it at the grocery store. Pregnant women are highly encouraged to get it, which also tells you about the safety of the vaccine.”

As Barrera reaches out to the media about “Rostros de la Gripe,” she’s also has another project in the works: a 1-hour reunion special of the Emmy Award-winning Disney show, which starts filming in several weeks.

“I’m especially proud that ‘Wizards’ is based on a family where the mom happens to be of Mexican heritage and it’s touched upon often,” says Barrera. “It’s also who I am. I’m 100 percent American and 100 percent Latin. My parents were born in Cuba and we had to speak Spanish at home, but we all love this country. We don’t see enough of the American-Latino experience on television. I’m happy to be part of a family that represents that accurately. And I think that’s what Latin-Americans want, accurate representation.”