Could Climate Change Affect Flu?

flu shot

For filing in the folder labeled "Hmmmm," as in "Interesting theory. Let's see."

In a helpful Q&A on this year's flu season and flu in general, Mother Jones writes that one reason flu tends to spread in winter is that the virus is known to thrive in low humidity, a condition common in the winter cold. Mother Jones senior editor Kiera Butler has an "Aha" moment: "So that's why the flu is so bad this year — the drought! So climate change actually made the flu worse, right?" But nothing is so simple...

Wouldn't it be nice if epidemiology were that easy? Unfortunately, it's not. If that were the case, you'd never see the flu in hot, humid places. But there's just as much flu in Florida right now as there is in some parts of Canada. Other variables make it impossible to predict flu seasons based on weather alone.

It's worth noting, though, that in a paper last year, [flu researcher Jeffrey] Shaman and his colleagues did document that each of the four flu pandemics of the 20th century were preceded by La Niña cycles, likely because birds mingled with each other differently during these unusual weather patterns. The flu strains that they were carrying probably hybridized and created a strain so new that humans had no immunity to it. Since, as we recently learned from this Climate Desk video, climate change does interact with El Niño/La Niña cycles, it's not completely out of the question that global warming could affect flu transmission, at least indirectly.

Readers? Care to speculate?

This program aired on January 16, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.



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