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As the climate heats up, earlier influenza seasons may become more common

Research published this week in PLOS Currents examining more than a decade worth of influenza patterns in the United States suggests that the onset and intensity of outbreaks could be linked to winter temperatures.

A Climatewire piece published today on the Scientific American site describes how the findings could help public health officials better predict the severity of flu seasons and why warmer-than-average winters seem to coincide with serious outbreaks:

The mechanisms behind seasonal influenza outbreaks are unclear, but understanding these patterns could help health officials wrangle with a notoriously mercurial medical specter caused by a rapidly mutating virus. Annually, the illness has a multibillion-dollar economic price tag in terms of treatment and lost productivity.


The 2011-2012 winter was the fourth-warmest on record, which may have had a substantial impact on influenza last year. "Indeed, this last winter, it was the mildest influenza season on record," Towers said. With a drop in infections, it is likely that fewer people decided to get the influenza vaccine, creating a larger vulnerable population for both the A and B varieties of the virus going into the next influenza season.

These factors may be playing a role in the current 2012-2013 epidemic, though researchers are cautions about drawing direct links. "The reason why [the current influenza outbreak] getting so much attention is that it started really early, which really speaks to the susceptibility in the population," said Jeffrey Shaman, a professor at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University who studies influenza and climate. Shaman was not involved in this study.

Previously: Improving methods for tracking flu trends using Twitter, Ask Stanford Med: Answers to your questions about seasonal influenzaDynamic duo: Flu vaccine plus adjuvant bolsters immunity and European experts debunk six myths about flu shot
Photo by eyesogreen

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