Editor’s note: This story would have been published much sooner, but both the author and one of the sources had the flu.
Visit any department at Tufts in the winter, says Elena Naumova, and at least one person is likely to be out sick with the flu. Naumova, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the School of Engineering who got the flu in January, models the spread of diseases like influenza using up-to-the-minute information from the Internet and state and federal sources, as well as historical data from previous flu seasons. Her goal is to help public health officials get out ahead of the illness, to anticipate where, when and who it might strike next.
Everyone knows the flu arrives in the winter and, like the snow, is gone by spring. But no one knows why that’s the case. Conventional wisdom once held that in winter, people stayed cooped up indoors together, making it easier for the virus to jump from person to person. Yet when researchers compiled the data, the flu’s seasonal patterns held true even in some warmer climates.
As principal investigator for the Tufts Initiative for the Forecasting and Modeling of Infectious Diseases, Naumova and her colleagues are sorting through the myriad variables that can influence the spread of infectious diseases. That includes things such as air temperature and humidity, but also harder-to-quantify factors like human social behavior.
Naumova is particularly interested in mapping the spread of flu, not just across state lines but over time. In one study, her research team found that snowbird retirees, traveling back and forth between Sunbelt states and the Northeast or Midwest, may play some role in how the U.S. flu season pans out.
In fact, this year’s virus made its U.S. debut in five warm-weather states—Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi—in November, according to surveillance data reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). By the last week of December, the entire eastern half of the nation was in the grip of flu season. A month later, most western states reported high rates of flu.
The pattern mirrors that of the 1991–92 season, says Naumova. That year’s flu virus, like the current one, also caused particularly severe symptoms. Right now, the analytical tools available aren’t fine-tuned enough to allow scientists to make predictions about this year based on the flu season 21 years ago, but that’s Naumova’s goal. “Maybe we will one day have a way to look at historical data and compare each year to past seasons,” she says. “That would probably help us understand what will happen a little bit better.”
While the number of flu cases this season has been on the decline since mid-January, the virus is still quite active relative to other years. Regional hot spots remain in New York City and New Jersey, Michigan and Hawaii.
But lest you think you’re in the clear where you live, Naumova warns that flu season usually lasts through March in the Northeast. Worse, a different type of flu often circulates after the primary infection and hangs around through April.
Stick Out Your Arm
So while it is late, it’s not too late to get vaccinated, says Kanchan Ganda, professor and director of medicine at the School of Dental Medicine, who oversees the vaccination program the dental school offers annually from September to November for faculty, staff and students who work in the school’s clinics. (While the shot is not mandatory, the Massachusetts health department requires all clinics to annually report vaccination rates among its employees.)
“I had some people from our school who at first declined it and then decided to get it,” Ganda says. “[Some people] are suddenly taking it seriously, now that the infection is spreading and the symptoms are more severe this year.”
Although many of us think of the flu as a stomach bug, influenza is a virus of the upper respiratory system and tends not to cause tummy trouble in adults. A sudden fever, aches and pains and exhaustion—that “hit by a truck” feeling—are the classic signs of the flu.
Typically, bed rest, pain medications, fluids and antivirals within the first two days are all that are required to recover. Since influenza is a virus, antibiotics won’t cure it, but flu sufferers are prone to bacterial complications such as pneumonia and sinus or ear infections that may then require medications, Ganda says.
“If you have a fever and are not feeling too good, stay home and take Tylenol or ibuprofen, hydrate yourself and call your doctor,” advises Ganda. “When you are fever-free for 24 hours—without medications—then you can go back to work.”
If you—like this formerly bed-ridden writer—got the flu shot last year and thought that it might get you safely through this season, think again. The flu virus mutates extremely rapidly, so “whatever strain you got [vaccinated against] the previous year, it does not match the one this year,” says Ganda. “It’s important to renew your vaccination every year.”
Jacqueline Mitchell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.