Super Bowl-influenza link is nothing to sneeze at

18% higher risk of death from flu complications among people over 65 from cities whose fans attend the Super Bowl.

February 4, 2015 08:41
3 minute read.
EXCITED FOOTBALL fans gather in Jerusalem’s First Station to take in Sunday’s late-night Super Bowl.

EXCITED FOOTBALL fans gather in Jerusalem’s First Station to take in Sunday’s late-night Super Bowl showdown between the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks.. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)

Deaths from complications of influenza are 18 percent higher among the elderly in cities whose football teams play in the Super Bowl, according to a working paper by Louisiana’s Tulane University researchers.

Their study of 36 years of statistical records found that the flu virus is spread not only when scores of thousands of people – some of them infected with the flu virus – converge in a stadium, but also when others gather to attend crowded parties in their own locations to celebrate – or mourn – the results of the game.

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In Sunday’s Super Bowl, huge numbers of fans from the winning Patriots’ Boston, rival Seahawks’ Seattle, and other cities met in the Arizona stadium.

According to the Tulane researchers, the epidemiological results are nothing to sneeze at. The flu virus can travel two meters in the air after a sneeze, according to lead author Prof.

Charles Stoecker, an expert in global health systems and development at Tulane’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.

“Football fans might contract a mild case of influenza, but then pass it on to other, potentially more susceptible people,” he said.

When people are unprotected by flu vaccine during the winter, hospital occupancy rises significantly. In Israel, only 21% of citizens of all ages were vaccinated this year; 64% of those over 65 who are the most vulnerable and a minority of children. About 1,000 Israelis young and old with weak immune systems die of flu complications in a given year, mostly in the winter months.

Although the vaccine does not always prevent being infected, especially among those with weak immune systems, the shot does reduce the risk that serious complications will set in.

The risk of infection exists not only in the stadium, but also when “you’re going to the bar or to peoples’ homes for watch parties and you’re double dipping the chip – or somebody else is – you’re spreading the flu,” said Stoecker. The effect is worse in years when the dominant strain is more virulent, like this year’s influenza A (H3N2) or when the Super Bowl occurs closer to the peak of flu season.

Post-season play also alters travel patterns, with more fans mixing with tourists either traveling to or from the game, increasing opportunities for transmission, the authors write.

The findings suggest that public health officials should remind fans in team cities to be vigilant. “The best way to protect yourself is to get vaccinated and practice good hygiene. Wash those hands! And be careful around the dip,” Stoecker said.

Health Ministry public health officials did not respond, but when asked to comment by The Jerusalem Post, epidemiology Prof. Yehuda Neumark, dean of the Hebrew University- Hadassah Braun School of Public Health and Community Medicine, said: “This study is yet another reminder of the vital importance of practicing basic hygiene and engaging in preventive measures in even seemingly innocuous situations and settings. It also reinforces the importance of sound public health policies at the federal and local level that protect the public in an increasingly complex social environment.”

Although Israel does not have a sports extravaganza like the Super Bowl, there are large sports events in open and indoor stadiums and other sports facilities during the winter, which is high season for the flu. In addition, lots of public transportation passengers whose vehicle windows are sealed or kept shut due to the cold are also potential breeding grounds for the flu and bacteria like Streptococcus.

Epidemiologists advise covering your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough in public, and when emerging from mass transit to always wash your hands carefully with soap and water to kill off pathogens you got from touching objects inside. It is also recommended that everyone over the age of six months be vaccinated against the flu, which is provided free by all health funds.

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