From: Allison Winter, ENN
Published January 31, 2013 07:04 AM

Study reveals climate patterns have impact on flu epidemics

The flu season has been hitting hard this winter all across the country with nearly 30 states reporting flulike activity and over 2,200 people being hospitalized according to government health experts. Whether or not you have gotten your flu shot, chances are you or someone you know someone has come down with flu-like systems. So what can we attribute the current spike in flu cases? According to one report, climate change is starting to play an interesting role.

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A team of scientists led by Sherry Towers, research professor in the Mathematical, Computational and Modeling Sciences Center at Arizona State University, studied waves of influenza and climate patterns in the U.S. from the 1997-1998 season to the present.

Researchers obtained weekly data from the CDC website of confirmed influenza incidences recorded across the US between the 1997-98 to 2012-13 influenza seasons and found that warm winters are usually followed by heavy flu seasons.

"It appears that fewer people contract influenza during warm winters, and this causes a major portion of the population to remain vulnerable into the next season, causing an early and strong emergence," says Towers. "And when a flu season begins exceptionally early, much of the population has not had a chance to get vaccinated, potentially making that flu season even worse."

Which is exactly the case for this year. The current flu season, which is still making headlines, began early this year as it followed a relatively light 2011 season, which saw the lowest peak of flu since tracking efforts went into effect, and consequently was the fourth warmest winter on record.

If global warming continues, warm winters will become more common, and the impact of flu will likely be more heavily felt, say the study's authors.

Researchers suggest that fewer people are infected with influenza during warm winters, thereby leaving an unnaturally large fraction of susceptible individuals in the population going into the next season, which can lead to early and severe epidemics.

Researchers observed that that climate patterns can have a profound impact on influenza epidemics beyond just the time frame of the current season. They also warn that the American public can expect earlier and more severe flu seasons as a result from climate change.

The research study is published in PLOS Currents: Influenza.

Girl with flu image via Shutterstock.

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