Sporting coaches might hope their players treat games as a matter of life and death. It turns out that could be true, but not quite in the way they hope. Having a team at the Superbowl can increase the numbers of influenza deaths in a city, a new study finds.
By comparing the death statistics for 1974 to 2009 from cities across America, Dr. Nicholas Sanders of Cornell University found an 18 percent increase in flu-related deaths for people over the age of 65 shortly after their home team made the Superbowl.
"You have friends over for a Super Bowl party. You all go out to a bar to watch the game. A bunch of people are cramped in a small space, and they're all touching the same napkins and grabbing the same chips. If your team wins, you're all out in the street celebrating. It's that kind of disease transmission that we think might be a driving factor," Sanders said in a statement. Perhaps surprisingly, the paper found no clear impact in the host cities from visitors bringing disease.
The strength of the effect varies, depending both on the intensity of the year's flu outbreak, and the closeness of the peak to the date of the Superbowl.
The finding suggests Bronco and Panthers fans should take care to wash their hands before, after, and possibly while celebrating. In future years, public health officials in cities whose teams look set for a good season might want to ramp up vaccination campaigns.
Sanders' work has been published in the American Journal of Health Economics under the title “Success Is Something to Sneeze At.” The findings are more than a punny title and useful advice for two cities each year, though. There are clear implications for all locations tasting sporting success, and wider insights into how flu spreads.
Sanders noted that even people who ignore the game could experience increased vulnerability to transmissible diseases. "It needn't be a direct leap, where an older person is at a bar watching the team," Sanders said. "It could be that individual's relative is at a bar and then he visits his parents. Or a worker at a retirement home goes out to get a drink and celebrate her team's win, and then returns to work the next day. Those are all possible disease transmissions."
Although billions of dollars are spent on controlling major flu pandemics, there is still a lot we don't know about how flu passes through the community, and Sanders' work may provide some lessons.
Moreover, it is not just flu that can gain a boost from sporting events. It is thought the Zika virus may have arrived in Brazil through tourists for the 2014 Football World Cup, or an international canoe event, and the Olympics later this year could spread it worldwide.
On the positive side, if you drink too much while watching the game, referencing Sanders might give you a better chance of convincing your boss you're sick the next day.