Achoo?

By Sepkowitz, Kent | Newsweek, January 30, 2012 | Go to article overview

Achoo?


Sepkowitz, Kent, Newsweek


Byline: Kent Sepkowitz

The curious case of the non-flu season.

Shouldn't we all be dead by now? We have lived for a few years amid a torrent of reports about the clear and imminent danger of epidemic flu (avian, swine, novel H1N1, whatever). States have passed laws requiring vaccinations for some groups and have stockpiled antiviral flu medications. We even had Hollywood churn out the creepy movie Contagion in September, all in preparation for the Big One.

And yet here we are in late January, when people should be hacking and sneezing and aching, and flu activity is, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at "relatively low" levels. Which raises the interesting question: did all of our preparation and worry and taxpayer dollars actually do something?

Not a chance. Flu epidemics are notoriously hard to predict and track. Remember the 2009 pandemic? It started in Mexico (a new wrinkle) in April (also new) and was caused by a strain never seen or imagined before. But don't expect this to deter people who are looking for explanations for this winter's flu cool-off. Public-health types are far too alarmist to predict an entire low-activity season--especially since they know that the peak flu season is usually early to mid-February--but others are already offering explanations and, presumably, preparing "you can thank me later" proclamations.

Like maybe it's the warm winter, be it courtesy of La Nina or global warming. For years, scientists have set out to tag influenza variability to climate change. The connection seems logical: viruses, like people, must have a favorite temperature and humidity and, since winter is when the crud usual-ly hits, influenza must like the cold. …

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