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Low Humidity Levels Help Flu Germs Spread

Finding explains why infection more common in winter months

TUESDAY, Feb. 10 (HealthDay News) -- Flu viruses survive longer and are more easily transmitted when humidity levels are low, such as in the peak flu months of January and February, Oregon researchers say.

A link between humidity and flu prevalence and transmission has long been suspected, but the focus has been on relative humidity, not absolute humidity, according to background information in an Oregon State University (OSU) news release. Relative humidity is the ratio of air water vapor content to the saturating level, which varies with temperature. Absolute humidity refers to the actual amount of water in the air, irrespective of temperature.

In this new study, the Oregon team re-analyzed data from a 2007 Mount Sinai School of Medicine study that identified a weak relationship between flu transmission and relative humidity. The re-analysis revealed a strong link between absolute humidity and flu virus survival and transmission.

"The correlations were surprisingly strong. When absolute humidity is low, influenza virus survival is prolonged, and transmission rates go up," study author Jeffrey Shaman, an atmospheric scientist at OSU who specializes in ties between climate and disease transmission, said in the news release.

Shaman and colleague Melvin Kohn, an epidemiologist with the Oregon Department of Health Services, concluded that relative humidity explains only about 36 percent of flu virus survival and 12 percent of transmission, while absolute humidity explains 90 percent of flu virus survival and 50 percent of transmission.

Their findings were published in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"In some areas of the country, a typical summer day can have four times as much water vapor as a typical winter day -- a difference that exists both indoors and outdoors," Shaman said. "Consequently, outbreaks of influenza typically occur in winter when low absolute humidity conditions strongly favor influenza survival and transmission."

More information

The American Academy of Family Physicians offers flu prevention tips.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: Oregon State University, news release, Feb. 9, 2009

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