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

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
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