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Flu Season, and the Links Between Mental Health and Infectious Diseases: Public Health Watch

It’s flu season in the United States—and, believe it or not, that means it may also be depression season.

Researchers in China have found a link between the seasonal virus and mental health, and the findings should be a reminder (or perhaps a wake-up call) for clinicians treating patients with flu specifically and infectious diseases in general.

According to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), some 24 million Americans are diagnosed with the flu annually, and another 5 million or more cases are prevented thanks to the influenza vaccine. CDC estimates suggest that vaccine uptake ranges from 30% to 70%, depending on age group.

The good news is that, in addition to preventing troubling cases of the flu, which can be fatal depending on the age and health status of the individual patient, the vaccine may also be helping preserve mental health. In a study published in October 2017 in BMC Infectious Diseases, researchers in China found that at least 60% to 75% of patients with influenza also experience anxiety and/or depression. Their findings were based on interviews with 839 patients with confirmed influenza.

The authors of the BMC study did not share their thoughts on particular reasons for the relationship between the 2 conditions, but they noted that significant numbers of influenza patients also experience problems engaging in normal daily activities as well as pain and discomfort.

Of course, this study is hardly the first time an infectious disease has been linked with mental health-related complications. Recently, studies have suggested that pregnant women diagnosed with Zika virus infection experience higher rates of anxiety and/or depression—likely due at least in part to the potential impact of the mosquito-borne disease on the health of their newborn children—and studies of patients with infectious diseases that effectively morph into chronic conditions—namely hepatitis C and HIV, among others—have also identified links with certain mental health conditions.

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