How watching TV might protect you from the flu

An increase in TV watching is more pronounced for children and wealthier groups during flu outbreaks. (Credit: iStockphoto)

Want to better protect yourself from the flu? It may be as easy as staying home and hanging out on the couch.

A review of the A/H1N1 influenza that hit Mexico City in April 2009 shows the outbreak could have been worse, but the spread of the virus was reduced because people distanced themselves from each other.

‘Social distancing’

During the outbreak, the Mexican federal government closed public schools in Mexico City and put “social distancing” measures in place. Researchers used home television viewing in Central Mexico as an indicator of behavioral response during the 2009 A/H1N1 pandemic.

Television ratings data are consistently and widely available and “highly correlated with time spent in the home,” says Michael Springborn, an economist at the University of California, Davis, and lead author of the study published in BMC Infectious Diseases.

These data provide a good indicator for the level of social interaction, because time spent watching television generally increases with time spent at home. And when people are home, they are limiting the number of contacts they make.

“We found that the behavioral response to the outbreak was initially strong but waned sooner than expected,” Springborn says.

This “rebound effect,” happens this way: at the onset of a flu outbreak, the public responds strongly to the directed control policies. But over time, people begin to spend less time in the confines of their homes. Such was the case during the Mexico City outbreak, even through the true risk had not fully waned.

“This suggests that efforts to utilize social distancing to mitigate disease spread may have a limited window of efficacy (i.e., before pent-up demand for activities outside the home takes precedence),” Springborn says.

The same type of behavior occurred during the 1918 influenza pandemic in Australia when the public returned to normal behavior once the perceived risk had passed.

Certain age groups and socioeconomic groups respond more strongly than others. An increase in TV watching is more pronounced for children and wealthier groups. It may be more difficult for people from poorer backgrounds to take self-protective actions like social distancing because of less flexibility with working hours, for example.

These differences between demographic groups could have public health policy implications for directing outbreak response assistance to those with lower financial means or increasing access to paid sick-leave for low-wage workers.

The findings also provide insight for selection of the duration and strength of major interventions (closing of businesses and canceling public events) versus other forms of assistance, such as distributing masks.

The study drew on the combined disciplinary strengths of epidemiology and economics to create a new model that incorporates behavioral responses into existing models of disease spread.

Source: UC Davis