At first, it might seem simple enough to explain how flu spreads. But try explaining the icky phenomenon beyond "sneezing or coughing on someone else," and you'll realize it's a lot more complicated than that. Fortunately, scientists are putting their heads together for all of our sakes to help explain what really drives the spread of the flu. As gross and unpleasant as flu season is, a recent study about it is actually pretty fascinating.
The February 2018 findings, published in the journal eLife, studied a bunch of data focusing on more than 150 million people over the course of nine years and created models that predicting how flu spreads in the US. The main takeaway? The flu literally spreads like wildfire in our country, starting from the southeastern portion and wreaking havoc in its path.
The researchers explained the forest fire comparison by detailing all the factors that make a disgusting flu outbreak possible. These factors include high "social connectivity" — or having a large group of close friends and family members — along with warm, humid weather and the collective movement of people as they travel — even for short distances.
In a release, the scientists summed it up like this: "This high social connectivity is the flammable material. The spark is the warm, humid weather of the southern coast, and the wind is the collective movement of all these people, over short distances by land, as they drive from county to county."
Is it just us, or is it kind of a bummer that all the steps that lead to a flu outbreak — catching up with pals, sunny days — are all things that make us so happy? But the good news is that this doesn't mean we have to stop enjoying those things; it's just that we need to pay even closer attention from now on whenever we hear news from public health officials about flu season — especially now that these models can possibly help them pinpoint where they need to focus most of their flu prevention efforts.
"For example, if flu-like symptoms are being reported in one county, you could tell people in neighboring counties to stay away from crowds, or you could focus vaccination efforts in certain places in advance," said lead author Andrey Rzhetsky, PhD. "It could be used essentially as a weather forecast for the flu."
After this year's brutal flu season, that sounds like a forecast we need!
Next, learn easy ways to quickly warm up a cold home in the video below: