Flu Champions: NFL Players Battle Flu Before Super Bowl


Researchers find that having a local team in the Super Bowl sets a city up for a substantial increase in flu-related illness and deaths during influenza season.

According to researchers at Tulane University and the College of William and Mary, having a local team in the Super Bowl sets a city up for a substantial increase in flu-related illness and even deaths during the influenza season that tends to debut around the same time football season ends.

If the trend holds in 2017, the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots are ready to take their influenza germs with them all the way to Houston. Both teams have struggled throughout January as players contracted what both teams dismissively referred to as “the flu bug;” the struggle to keep influenza out of the locker room was real. During the playoffs, both the Green Bay Packers (who lost to the Falcons) and the Pittsburgh Steelers (who lost to the Patriots) battled the bug as well, leading many fans to speculate that the stars, or at least the locker-room creeping germs, had aligned to send the Falcons and the Patriots on their way to Houston.

According to ESPN and a number of tweets from Steelers players themselves, 15 individuals in the Steelers facility caught a 24-hour "bug," what wide receiver Cobi Hamilton euphemistically referred to as “suffering a setback” the week before the game. The Packers did not fare much better, with Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers telling ESPN reporters that he and at least three other players were suffering from the infection as well. As a result, several of the Green Bay players were kept isolated for several days due to concerns that they might still be contagious. That isolation could have played a role in Green Bay’s eventual loss to the Atlanta team, despite the Falcon’s own offensive coordinator’s decision to coach through his own flu infection while bolstering himself with what he described to reporters as “IV fluids.”

While true-blue fans may be worrying about their favorite players’ health heading into Super Bowl LI, they probably ought to be more worried about whether or not they will receive their flu shot before heading off to the big viewing party. A research team headed by Charles Stoecker, PhD, assistant professor of Global Health Management and Policy at Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, evaluated data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s Vital Statistics of the United States from 1974 to 2009 and concluded that by their estimates, “having a local team in the Super Bowl caused an 18% increase in influenza deaths for the population over age 65.” The group added, “Results are most pronounced in years when the dominant influenza strain is more virulent, or when the Super Bowl occurs closer to the peak of influenza season.” However, Houston residents thinking of packing up and heading out until the flu-firestorm is over can rest easy. The group did not find any correlation between influenza mortality and hosting the Super Bowl.

The team of scientists suggested that there might be several reasons for the increased influenza-related mortality in championship teams’ home cities. “Increased success of an NFL team is cause for increased gathering and celebration by local inhabitants,” observed Dr. Stoecker and his colleagues in their study. They noted that “friends and family” are likely to gather in public places like bars and restaurants as well as in private venues and share food and drinks for several hours at a time. Furthermore, counties associated with playoff teams that did not make the Super Bowl demonstrated some evidence of increased infection and mortality rates. Increased numbers of social gatherings associated with the Super Bowl seem to be a likely culprit for the spread of influenza and the rise in influenza-related mortality in these counties, since food, drink (and germs!) are often shared at these parties.

According to data provided by the CDC on peak flu activity since 1982, February is the top month for flu with a total of 14 seasons having peaked during this month since 1982. This means that the senior populations in particular in both Boston and Atlanta are possibly at risk for increased flu-related mortality in the wake of this year’s Super Bowl. Therefore, susceptible individuals should consider getting vaccinated even though the flu season is already underway. “We see a bigger increase in Super Bowl-related influenza mortality when the dominant influenza strain is one of the more virulent ones,” Dr. Stoecker told Contagion®. “This year it’s A(H3N2), which is particularly deadly,” he warned. He noted that it takes “a couple of weeks” for a flu vaccination to be fully effective, “so, it’s too late to protect from the Super Bowl-related increase in influenza mortality, but the Super Bowl is only one of many ways that the flu gets spread around the country.”

Given that in past years, some flu seasons had peaked as late as March, anyone who has not receive their flu shot yet should still consider doing so now. Perhaps the best news of all: if you receive your flu shot today, any lingering side effects will likely be over by the time you head out for the Super Bowl party on Sunday night!

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