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July 2001
Vol. 4, No. 7, p 18.
news in brief

“Sunspotting” influenza

In our not too distant past, people looked to the skies for portents of evil. Whether it was Apollo riding on his chariot to shoot arrows of pestilence or a new star rising in the east to foretell of great changes, the world of humans changed with the vagaries of the heavens. The Age of Reason supposedly switched the Western world out of this mindset, but if the work of three researchers from British Columbia is to be believed, it may be time to look to the skies once more.

Pandemics of influenza have long been known to recur in a quasi-decadal pattern. Solar magnetic activity (sunspots) has a similar periodicity, recurring in an 11-year cycle. This coincidence prompted three Canadian researchers—an astrophysicist, an epidemiologist, and a physician— to look for a correlation between periods of peak sunspot activity and influenza pandemics.

Ken Tapping, a researcher at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory in Penticton, and his two colleagues compared historical records of flu pandemics and solar flare activity dating back to the early 1700s (Can. J. Inf. Dis. 2001, 12, in press). The group looked at how closely the infectious disease tracked with the years of peak activity and weighted the correlation accordingly. They found a definite tendency for pandemics to occur during periods of solar maxima, and a statistical simulation suggested that the chance of the cycles being randomly coincidental was less than 2%.

The trio did not speculate on a possible causative link between the two events, other than to say that “the solar–environmental connection is well-established.” Tapping told the National Post, “Even though things like this sound a bit strange at the start, when you look around you find lots and lots of evidence that the sun is playing games in our environment.”


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