Worse flu seasons to come?

By Scott Lafee, CNS


Climate change is nothing to sneeze at.

Indeed, if researchers are right, you might be sneezing more.

In a new published study, scientists at Arizona State University say an analysis of flu and climate patterns in the United States from 1997 to the present suggests that warm winters are usually followed by heavier-than-normal influenza outbreaks.

“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 (flu) season, causing an early and strong emergence,” said study author Sherry Towers, a professor at the Mathematical, Computational and Modeling Sciences Center at ASU.

“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.”

The current flu season may be a case in point: It began early and fiercely and still rages in parts of the country. The Vermont Department of Health has labeled the current flu level in Vermont “widespread,” meaning that outbreaks of influenza or influenza-like illness are reported in at least half the regions in the state.

This flu season followed a relatively light 2011 season and coincided with the fourth warmest winter on record.

According to studies, flu transmission decreases in warm or humid conditions.

The authors speculate that if global warming continues, with warm summers becoming more common, the emergence of future flu seasons is likely to be more dramatic and perhaps more devastating.