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Will a Major Sporting Event Help Spread Flu?

FILE - Guests gather to watch the Super Bowl, Feb. 2, 2014, in New York. During flu season, “Anytime that you have large groups of people congregating in enclosed spaces you know it always offers an opportunity for more efficient spread of germs,” an epidemiologist warned.

The Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots football teams are already in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where they are training for the American football championship, the Super Bowl, a game being played there Sunday.

It’s the biggest U.S. football event of the year. Millions of people will watch it on TV at Super Bowl parties at home, and up to a million more from around the nation are expected to attend Super Bowl-related events in Minneapolis.

Minneapolis has turned its convention center into a place where kids and adults can test their football skills in an event called the Super Bowl Experience. There, they can practice their throws and their kicks. They can also use special equipment to play football-related virtual reality games.

Because of widespread flu throughout the U.S., some have compared these venues to a giant petri dish where the flu virus can flourish and spread.

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Parents like Julie Dietline, who took her son to the Super Bowl Experience, was concerned he would pick up germs from the virtual reality goggles. Then she saw how thoroughly volunteers were disinfecting the equipment.

“They’ve been wiping everything down, sanitizing it before the kids use it,” she said.

Large gatherings

Kris Ehresmann is an epidemiologist with the Minnesota Department of Public Health. She says that while it’s possible people could pick up the influenza virus at these events, “Anytime that you have large groups of people congregating in enclosed spaces you know it always offers an opportunity for more efficient spread of germs.”

Dr. Jeff Kwong at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences in Toronto agreed.

“Even going to someone’s house to watch the game on TV, you know you’re gathering with people, and we know that people when they’re coughing and sneezing, and there’s a recent study that shows that just breathing you could be transmitting viruses,” he said.

A silent risk

An infected person can transmit the virus before he realizes he is sick. He can also be at greater risk for a heart attack.

Kwong was the lead author of a new study that shows that respiratory viruses, especially influenza, can affect the heart, something doctors had long suspected.

“What we showed was that you’re six times more likely to have a heart attack during the week after ... testing positive for influenza infection,” Kwong told VOA in a Skype interview.

Those most at risk? People older than 65. People as young as 35 were included in the study, but older adults were most at risk for heart attacks.

Kwong is hoping the study can save lives.

“If we can prove that influenza triggers heart attacks, then there’s a certain percentage of heart attacks that could be prevented through getting flu shots,” he said.

Flu shots

Even though this year’s flu has caused schools to close, many people don’t believe they need the vaccine. Some are unaware that influenza is a serious illness that can lead to hospitalization and death. They think the flu is more like a bad cold.

Normally, Kwong and other doctors recommend that people be vaccinated against the flu early in the season, but with several more weeks left in this year’s flu season in the northern hemisphere, doctors are still urging people to get the shot.

Back in Minnesota, public health officials are telling people attending the football game and Super Bowl events to try to avoid close contact with sick people, to wash their hands often, and avoid touching their eyes and noses because this is the primary way people get the flu.