Flu likes winter

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Flu likes winter

Post  dove on Tue 11 Dec 2007, 6:00 am

Researchers in New York believe they have solved one of the great mysteries of the flu: Why does the infection spread primarily in the winter months?

The answer, they say, has to do with the virus itself. It is more stable and stays in the air longer when air is cold and dry, the exact conditions for much of the flu season.

“Influenza virus is more likely to be transmitted during winter on the way to the subway than in a warm room,” said Peter Palese, a flu researcher who is professor and chairman of the microbiology department at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and the lead author of the flu study.

Dr. Palese published details of his findings in the Oct. 19 issue of PLoS Pathogens. The crucial hint that allowed him to do his study came from a paper published in the aftermath of the 1918 flu pandemic, when doctors were puzzling over why and how the virus had spread so quickly and been so deadly.

As long as flu has been recognized, people have asked, Why winter? The very name, “influenza,” is an Italian word that some historians proposed, originated in the mid-18th century as influenza di freddo, or “influence of the cold.”

Flu season in northern latitudes is from November to March, the coldest months. In southern latitudes, it is from May until September. In the tropics, there is not much flu at all and no real flu season.

There was no shortage of hypotheses. Some said flu came in winter because people are indoors; and children are in school, crowded together, getting the flu and passing it on to their families.

Others proposed a diminished immune response because people make less vitamin D or melatonin when days are shorter. Others pointed to the direction of air currents in the upper atmosphere. But many scientists were not convinced.

“We know one of the largest factors is kids in school — most of the major epidemics are traced to children,” said Dr. Jonathan McCullers, a flu researcher at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. “But that still does not explain wintertime. We don’t see flu in September and October.”

As for the crowding argument, Dr. McCullers said, “That never made sense.” People work all year round and crowd into buses and subways and planes no matter what the season.

“We needed some actual data,” Dr. McCullers added.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/05/health/research/05flu.html

dove
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