Increase in employment rates shows strong link to spread of flu, study finds

When it comes to the flu, the most effective way to keep it from spreading is to stay home, even if it means taking a few days off work.

A study from the University of Alabama at Birmingham looked at the effect of employment rates on the spread of the highly contagious influenza virus. Researchers found that a 1 percentage point increase in the employment rate increases the number of flu related outpatient doctor visits by 19 percent, with these effects highly pronounced in the retail and health care sectors due to their high levels of interpersonal contact.

A 1 percentage point increase in employment is exceptionally rare in a one-month span. But, even a typical increase in employment would increase flu incidence by about 6 percent, which shows how a small change in employment can significantly increase the spread of a virus, particularly in jobs where you are in contact with more people."

Joshua Robinson, Ph.D., associate professor of economics, UAB Collat School of Business

Investigators suggest that labor market-based activities, such as public transportation, car pools, working in offices, putting children in day care and having frequent contact with the public, are likely conducive to the spread of the flu.

The study, published in Economics and Human Biology, shows that employment forecasts could be used by public health officials to plan for the severity of the upcoming flu season. For example, if the economy is on an upswing, the public health community should plan for an increase in flu-related health visits.

"Watching the shifts in employment and the types of employment being filled could help officials adjust flu predictions for the year," Robinson said.

Because of the contact with others, those who work in the retail and health care industries are at a higher risk for spreading the flu to co-workers and customers or patients. The study suggests there is a need to monitor shifts in employment from goods-producing jobs to service jobs.

In addition, employers should consider the effects of employees' catching the flu while at work versus the effects of a few individuals' taking sick leave.

"Many workers express concerns of missing pay or losing their jobs because they stayed home while ill, especially if the symptoms are mild," Robinson said. "If employers provided a more generous sick day policy, particularly during flu season, this could decrease the spread of the virus."

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