Tag Archives: Winter

Over 100 schools hit by the winter vomiting bug

It’s that time of the year again: Black Friday, Thanksgiving, influenza, and norovirus. The winter cold months are the perfect environment for some pathogens to spread.

Norovirus, also called the “winter vomiting bug”, is a very contagious virus that causes vomiting and diarrhea. Norovirus is spread by coughing, sneezing and close contact, or touching the same surfaces. People infected with norovirus can shed billions of norovirus particles and only a few virus particles can make other people sick.

About 60 schools in north-east England have been hit by a suspected outbreak of norovirus. Some schools in the region had to close down last week and undergo a ‘deep clean’, after hundreds of staff and pupils were hit with vomiting, diarrhea and flu-like symptoms.

Public Health England (PHE) said it was not able to give an exact figure of the number of schools that have been affected, nor their location. However, figures published by PHE suggested norovirus rates are 26 percent higher than they usually are at this time of year.

Between October 28 and November 10, a total of 332 people were infected by the highly contagious bug. A total of 18 outbreaks caused hospital wards to close or to restrict admissions across England and Wales. PHE said it expects these types of bugs to go around schools and workplaces during this time of year, as norovirus is predominantly a ‘winter pathogen’.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Mesa County Valley School District 51 – a school district in Colorado, United States – announced the closing of the entire school district through the end of this school week. All 46 schools in the district reported several students and teachers have gotten sick with vomiting and diarrhea. Although the cause has not yet been clearly identified yet, experts believe this is most likely norovirus.

Noroviruses are thought to be the most common cause of acute gastroenteritis (diarrhea and vomiting). On average, noroviruses cause 19 to 21 million cases of acute gastroenteritis, 1.7–1.9 million outpatient visits and 400,000 emergency department visits in the U.S. per year, according to the CDC.

Young children, the elderly, and people who have a weakened immune system are particularly susceptible to catching noroviruses. The spread of the virus can be hard to control because it’s contagious before symptoms appear.

The Think Noro public health campaign advises:

N“No visits to hospitals, care homes and GP surgeries if you are suffering from symptoms of Norovirus – send someone else to visit loved ones until you are better.”

O“Once you’ve been symptom-free for at least 48 hours, you’re safe to return to work, school or visit hospitals and care home.”

R“Regularly wash your hands with soap and warm water, especially after using the toilet, and before eating or preparing food.”

O“Only hand-washing will prevent the spread of Norovirus – alcohol hand gels DON’T kill the virus.” Hand sanitizers are not effective against norovirus; soap is your best weapon.

There is still no licensed vaccine against norovirus, but there are promising candidates in the pipeline.

Why are people more likely to get sick or die from flu during winter months?

In the temperate regions, between the subtropics and the polar circles, temperatures are not “extreme”, not burning hot nor freezing cold (temperate means moderate). In these parts of the world, seasonal influenza virus outbreaks happen during the winter months — peaking between November and March in the Northern Hemisphere (i.e. All of continental Europe, North America) and between May and September in the Southern Hemisphere (i.e. Australia, Zealandia, Brazil).

Scientists have hypothesized several reasons for this. Maybe because people are inside more in cold weather, one theory holds, so the virus spreads more easily. Or maybe it’s because people are not out in the sun making Vitamin D, and their immune systems are weak. Or perhaps people travel for holidays at certain times of years, helping spread the virus. So far, not one of these theories has proved a winner.

Recently, a group of researchers from Yale University, Veterans Affairs Connecticut Healthcare System, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute has pinpointed a key reason why people are more likely to get sick and even die from flu during winter months: low humidity.

The Yale research team, led by Akiko Iwasaki, the Waldemar Von Zedtwitz Professor of Immunobiology, explored the question using mice genetically modified to resist viral infection like humans do. The mice were all housed in chambers at the same temperature, but with either low or normal humidity. They were then exposed to the influenza A virus. The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).


They found that low humidity hindered the immune response of the animals in three distinct ways: 1) it prevented cilia, which are hair-like structures in airways cells, from removing viral particles and mucus, 2) it also reduced the ability of airway cells to repair damage caused by the virus in the lungs, 3) in low humidity, interferons or signaling proteins released by virus-infected cells to alert neighboring cells to the viral threat do not function optimally. The study offers insight into why the flu is more prevalent when the air is dry.

“It’s well known that where humidity drops, a spike in flu incidence and mortality occurs. If our findings in mice hold up in humans, our study provides a possible mechanism underlying this seasonal nature of flu disease,” said Akiko Iwasaki.

While the researchers emphasized that humidity is not the only factor in flu outbreaks, it is an important one that should be considered during the winter season. Increasing water vapor in the air with humidifiers at home, school, work, and even hospital environments is a potential strategy to reduce flu symptoms and speed recovery, they said. In addition, it’s always a good idea to wash your hands often and get vaccinated with the flu vaccine.

New study might explain why winters have been more horrid in recent years

Researchers might have an explanation for why winters have gotten so horrendous, at least in areas such as the UK and the US.

Image by Jarmoluk.

Winter in the city is awful – there, I’ve said it. I mean, it’s one thing to enjoy winter in the mountains or in some remote forest with beautiful, fluffy white snow. You can just get a mug of hot cocoa or mulled wine and let it all go by. But when you’re in a city, it’s nothing like that. Everyone’s cold, everyone’s late, the traffic is awful, the snow is melting and dirty or it’s just raining. In recent years, that seems to be getting even worse, doesn’t it?

As humans, we don’t exactly have an accurate recollection of how seasons are like. We may remember an exceptionally cold or warm winter, but year after year, this kind of memories starts to get fuzzy because let’s face it – who pays that much attention to the weather anyway? Well, University of Sheffield researchers sure do. They found that the recent harsh winters were caused by the positioning of jet streams, the narrow bands of very strong winds encircling the globe several miles above ground.

“We’ve always had years with wavy and not so wavy jet stream winds, but in the last one-to-two decades the warming Arctic could well have been amplifying the effects of the wavy patterns,” Professor Edward Hanna, one of the lead researchers involved with the study, and a professor of geography at Sheffield, told Business Insider.

“This may have contributed to some recent extreme cold winter spells along the eastern seaboard of the United States, in eastern Asia, and at times over the UK.”

When the jet streams are wavy, the weather is more severe and the winter is harsher. Not only that, but the warming Arctic, which affects global circulation, also plays a part. The team believes that understanding these interactions could not only explain why we’re seeing bad winter weather, but also help perfect our forecasts so authorities can be better prepared.

“Improving our ability to predict how climate change is affecting the jet stream will help to improve our long-term prediction of winter weather in some of the most highly populated regions of the world,” Hanna said.

“The public could better prepare for severe winter weather and have access to extra crucial information that could help make live-saving and cost-saving decisions.”

Journal Reference: Nonlinear response of mid-latitude weather to the changing Arctic.

Study finds why New Year’s resolutions to lose weight fail

Throughout our hunter-forager days, humans have developed a subconscious urge to over-eat and became less and less psychologically equipped to avoid obesity, especially during the winter months, a University of Exeter study recently found. Evolving in an environment where food security was only a pipe dream, the lack of an evolutionary mechanism to help us resist the temptation of sweet, fatty and unhealthy food is understandable, researchers state.

People ultimately are animals themselves, and like all animals we’ve evolved and adapted to living in the wild, tailoring our biology to the rigors of an often harsh and unforgiving environment. In the wild, from a survivalistic point of view being overweight brings much to the table for relatively little cost, but being underweight could be life threatening. So we’ve developed an urge to eat in order to maintain body fat; an urge that only gets stronger in the winter, when food became scarce in the natural world.

Ahaha, way ahead of you dawg!
Image via funnyjunk

This, scientists believe, explains why our winter holidays traditionally revolve around bountiful meals and why our New Year’s resolutions to lose all the extra weight fail so utterly. We don’t live in the wild any more though, and we know that being overweight is detrimental to our health in the modern world, so..

Why don’t we put the fork down?

 “You would expect evolution to have given us the ability to realise when we have eaten enough, but instead we show little control when faced with artificial food,” said Dr Andrew Higginson, from the College of Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Exeter, lead author of the study.

Higginson’s team used computer modelling to predict the optimal amount of fat that animals (including humans) should store, assuming evolution has given them physiological and psychological tools to maintain their healthiest weight. Their results show a strong correlation to the availability of food and predatory risks; in other words, when food is scarce animals should attempt to build their fat reserves to have a better chance of surviving if they can’t find anything to eat, and shed the extra pounds when food is readily available to give them a better chance of escaping predators (and looking less tasty.)

Overall, the model shows that there is sort of a tipping point, a target body weight above which the animal should try to lose weight and below which it should attempt to gain fat. But their simulations also showed that usually there’s only a small negative effect on energy stores (i.e. carrying those love-handles around) when exceeding the optimal point; evolution understands this really well, so any subconscious mechanisms working against becoming overweight are a feeble defense to the immediate physical reward of eating tasty food. In modern society where food is really tasty and readily available, the urge to eat becomes much more powerful than our internal weight-o-meters.

“Because modern food today has so much sugar and flavour the urge humans have to eat it is greater than any weak evolutionary mechanism which would tell us not to,” Higginson goes on to say.
 And during winter, our survival instincts kick in big time, making us much more likely to over-eat just so that we’ll survive winter; and making New Year’s weigh-loss resolutions throughout the world fail before they begin.

“The model also predicts animals should gain weight when food is harder to find. All animals, including humans, should show seasonal effects on the urge to gain weight. Storing fat is an insurance against the risk of failing to find food, which for pre-industrial humans was most likely in winter. This suggests that New Year’s Day is the worst possible time to start a new diet.”

The evolutionary model also shows that there is no evidence to support the “drifty gene” hypothesis, which some researchers have previously suggested would explain why some people become overweight and others do not.

The research, “Fatness and fitness: Exposing the logic of evolutionary explanations for obesity” is published online in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.