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A thick blanket of smog covered the Qutub Minar due to air pollution, in New Delhi on Monday, (ANI Photo)
A thick blanket of smog covered the Qutub Minar due to air pollution, in New Delhi on Monday, (ANI Photo)

Pollution exposure can raise flu risk

  • Lower air pollution levels bring down the number of influenza hospitalizations and save medical costs, shows a new study

Both air pollution and influenza affect our body through the same biological pathway, causing millions of deaths every year. But do they interact with each other and compound the risk? A recent working paper from the US National Bureau of Economic Research finds air pollution indeed worsens the harms of seasonal influenza.

Joshua S. Graff Zivin of University of California, San Diego and other co-authors find the link using patient-level data on hospitalizations due to seasonal influenza in the US during 2007-2017. They also suggest that given the relationship between the two hazards, their remedies also complement each other.

So in a year when a flu vaccine is more effective than normal, fewer flu hospitalizations are found to be attributable to pollution. Increased use of the vaccine shows a positive effect, too, and reduces influenza hospitalizations in a year of high pollution. Similarly, improved air quality compensates for a less effective vaccine.

The elderly benefit the most from an improved vaccine and a lower level of pollution. The analysis also shows a better return for Blacks and Hispanics, who are more exposed to the pollution hazard, from an effective vaccine.

A 10% reduction in pollution, even in the case of a poor vaccine, could bring down flu-related hospitalizations by 8% in a year. And a 10% improvement in vaccine take-up or effectiveness could save about $292 million from influenza medical costs, the paper finds.

Both influenza outbreaks and pollution levels are hard to predict as they depend on a myriad of factors. So the study findings are particularly useful as the protection against one could provide a cover against the other. Policy solutions for both hazards should, therefore, work in tandem, the researchers suggest.

As economic activities resume, pollution will increase and aggravate the risks of coronavirus infection. Thus, additional environmental controls could serve as an alternative policy measure.

Also read: When Externalities Collide: Influenza and Pollution

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