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Study finds that a small rise in employment means a big rise in flu cases

Health experts say that getting vaccinated is the

Health experts say that getting vaccinated is the best way to protect yourself and others from flu. Credit: Getty Images/fstop123

While the tight labor market may be good news for the economy, the bustling employment picture could mean lots more flu will be going around, researchers said.

According to a study by researchers at Emory University, Ball State University and the University of Alabama-Birmingham, higher employment correlates with increased rates of flu transmission in the United States.

U.S. unemployment is at 3.5%, a 50-year low, according to the most recent figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The study, published in the August volume of Economics & Human Biology, found that a 1 percentage point increase in the employment rate correlated with a 16% rise in the number of influenza-related doctor visits. The trend was strongest in the retail and health care sectors, where interpersonal contact is most frequent.

"I guess it's the one downside of less unemployment," said Dr. Daniel Griffin, a partner at Lake Success-based ProHEALTH Care.

"The more contact you have with people, the better chance you have of getting the flu, or any other winter virus," he said.

By finding a connection between the rate of employment and the increase of influenza cases, the researchers, who used data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the 2010-2011 and 2016-2017 flu seasons and employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, said they hoped to find a means of better predicting the severity of a flu season by relying more heavily on economic models. 

But while Dr. David Hirschwerk, executive vice chair of Northwell Health's North Shore University Hospital and Long Island Jewish Medical Center, called the results of the research “intriguing,” he said medicine has ways of gauging the severity of a coming flu season.

"Our predictors are not perfect, but they're effective," said Hirschwerk. "We can look at other parts of the world, where the flu season has already appeared. Also, once the first patients with the flu appear, we can see how successful the current vaccine is."

And health experts agree that getting vaccinated is the best way to limit the spread and risk of flu transmission.

“Our message in public health is to get vaccinated,” said MaryEllen Laurain, spokeswoman for the Nassau County Department of Health. “If you’re sick, stay at home. If one person is ill, it can spread throughout a job site.”

The prevalence of the flu in New York State is “now considered to be widespread,” according to a recent announcement from the Department of Health, which cited laboratory-confirmed cases of the illness in 42 of the state’s 62 counties.

So far this season, there have been nearly 700 flu-related hospitalizations and one flu-related pediatric death reported, the state said.

In the study, researchers said the seasonal influenza season carried an estimated economic burden ranging from $34.7 billion to $90 billion per year.

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