Skip to main content

How the holidays spread the flu

By David Zich, Special to CNN
January 14, 2013 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Zich: This flu season definitely ranks as one of the worst I've seen
  • Zich: This outbreak is worse than average due to, more than anything, poor timing
  • He says the holiday period was the perfect storm for the spread of influenza
  • Zich: The peak onset of the flu coincided with a time when our immunity was down

Editor's note: David Zich, an internist and emergency physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, is an assistant professor of medicine at Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University.

(CNN) -- I started to see influenza-like illnesses starting roughly around mid-December, and within a week knew that 2013 was going to be a bad year. In my 12 years of practice in Chicago, this flu season definitely ranks as one of the worst I've seen. However, I also see no reason to be alarmed that we have a public health threat. What we are dealing with is a well-known virus. This outbreak is worse than average due to, more than anything, poor timing.

There are three main factors to consider in evaluating the intense flu activity across the country.

One is the virus itself. Both the medical community and the general public alike worry someday we will encounter a "superbug." We fear a virus that is extremely potent at causing disease, replicating, resisting our treatment and killing the host. Though the predominant strain this year may be slightly more potent than average based on the number of cases we are seeing, there is no indication that this virus is markedly different from what we've seen in other years.

David Zich
David Zich
Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Opinion: Next time, get vaccinated earlier

The percentage of influenza-related deaths is not higher than in previous outbreaks. The CDC also has found no viral strains this season that are resistant to neuraminidase inhibitors, the drugs that we use to treat patients once they develop the flu. So, we need not worry too much about the virus.

The second factor to consider is the effectiveness of the flu shot. This year's flu vaccine is well matched to the strains of flu that have been circulating. According to the CDC, more than 90% of the identified viral types are covered by the current vaccine. In other words, we cannot blame an ineffective vaccine for the bad outbreak.

Finally, we need to look at environmental factors. The unusually warm weather this winter should not be contributing to the severity of the outbreak. Why? Because last year, it was also unusually warm, and at the time we hypothesized the weather was partly responsible for a milder than normal flu season. Clearly, warm weather can't both enhance and suppress the spread of influenza. Instead, we must focus on what's different from previous years.

What makes flu outbreak an 'epidemic'?
Worst flu season in a decade
Flu outbreak: Protecting schools

Unlike last year, when the flu showed up late, this flu season came early. Most importantly, the peak incidence of illness happened to coincide almost exactly with the onset of the holiday season, which is critical to take into account.

If someone were trying to develop a way to disseminate an illness, he would first devise a way to weaken the population's immune system, and then bring people together to spread the disease. In essence, that is what the holiday season does.

Opinion: America flunks its health exam

Because of holiday preparations and parties, people tolerate less sleep. Stress around the holidays generally goes up. Combine those with poor eating habits and overindulgences that are typical in festive times, and the immune system gets weakened.

Once a person contracts the flu virus, he or she is contagious approximately 12 to 24 hours before the peak onset of symptoms, and is often contagious up to 24 hours after resolution of fever. During this very social time of year, many of these sick people are either tolerating their symptoms to join big groups of friends or family, or coming together honestly unaware that they are contagious. As a result, we have the perfect storm for the spread of influenza.

In sum, our flu season this year is simply a product of poor timing.

Health: Your top flu questions answered

The peak onset of the flu just happened to coincide with a period when we have weakened our immune system and congregated in large gatherings to, among other things, disseminate disease. There is no supervirus. The flu strains have been well anticipated and carry no resistance to our treatment. We have no reason to panic.

I recommend that everyone de-stress from the holiday stresses, wash their hands, eat healthy, exercise and get plenty of sleep. Stay home if you are sick. And in good time, this too shall pass.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Zich.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT