Here, the authors demonstrate that variations of absolute humidity explain both the onset of wintertime influenza transmission and the overarching seasonality of this pathogen in temperate regions.
Much of the observed wintertime increase of mortality in temperate regions is attributed to seasonal influenza. A recent reanalysis of laboratory experiments indicates that absolute humidity strongly modulates the airborne survival and transmission of the influenza virus. Here, we extend these findings to the human population level, showing that the onset of increased wintertime influenza-related mortality in the United States is associated with anomalously low absolute humidity levels during the prior weeks. We then use an epidemiological model, in which observed absolute humidity conditions temper influenza transmission rates, to successfully simulate the seasonal cycle of observed influenza-related mortality. The model results indicate that direct modulation of influenza transmissibility by absolute humidity alone is sufficient to produce this observed seasonality. These findings provide epidemiological support for the hypothesis that absolute humidity drives seasonal variations of influenza transmission in temperate regions.
The origin of seasonality in influenza transmission is both of palpable public health importance and basic scientific interest. Here, we present statistical analyses and a mathematical model of epidemic influenza transmission that provide strong epidemiological evidence for the hypothesis that absolute humidity (AH) drives seasonal variations of influenza transmission in temperate regions. We show that the onset of individual wintertime influenza epidemics is associated with anomalously low AH conditions throughout the United States. In addition, we use AH to modulate the basic reproductive number of influenza within a mathematical model of influenza transmission and compare these simulations with observed excess pneumonia and influenza mortality. These simulations capture key details of the observed seasonal cycle of influenza throughout the US. The results indicate that AH affects both the seasonality of influenza incidence and the timing of individual wintertime influenza outbreaks in temperate regions. The association of anomalously low AH conditions with the onset of wintertime influenza outbreaks suggests that skillful, short-term probabilistic forecasts of epidemic influenza could be developed.