Why The Flu Likes Winter

flu cold sickness graphic influenza sneeze blow

The Skinny is Keach Hagey's take on the top news of the day and the best of the Internet.

Why do we get the flu in winter?

For years, it was commonly thought it had something to do with our chill-compromised immune systems. Or the extra germs circulating from so many people being indoors together. Or perhaps a kind of coal-in-stocking punishment for being naughty during the rest of the year.

Turns out, it's got nothing to do with humans at all.

The New York Times reports that researchers in New York have found that the flu's seasonal preferences have to do with the virus itself. It is more stable and stays in the air longer when air is cold and dry.

"Influenza virus is more likely to be transmitted during winter on the way to the subway than in a warm room," said Peter Palese, a flu researcher at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York who headed up the study.

The answer had long eluded scientists because experimenting on humans is inhumane and mice don't spread the flu the way we do. Ferrets do, but they're expensive and ornery (they bite).

The breakthrough came when Palese stumbled on a paper published in 1919 in the Journal of the American Medical Association on the flu epidemic at Camp Cody in New Mexico. "It is interesting to note that very soon after the epidemic of influenza reached this camp, our laboratory guinea pigs began to die," the researchers wrote.

That meant guinea pigs might get the flu. Palese tried out the theory and it worked, allowing the first experiment of its kind to be designed.

In some ways, the answer was hiding in plain sight all along. The word influenza comes from the Italian words "influenza di freddo," or "influence of the cold."

Clinton Hammered For Her Iran Vote

Different papers pulled different things out of the NPR debate yesterday - the New York Times thought it was about immigration, while USA Today led with Iran - but just about everyone agreed it was genteel.

To a political reporter, that is a synonym for boring.

"In an even traditionally conducted in a lower key than other in the White House race, National Public Radio's Democratic forum lived up to its reputation and produced few sparks," wrote the Wall Street Journal's Christopher Cooper, barely stifling a yawn.

But he predicts that the low glow of tensions produced over Hillary Clinton's highly controversial vote to dub Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group will likely flare into a full-blown fight in coming weeks, now that the Bush administration's hawkish talk on Iran seems to have had the legs kicked out from under it by the latest National Intelligence Estimate.

Clinton was the only Democrat running for office to vote for the measure, sponsored by Connecticut Democrat Joe Lieberman - himself nearly ousted last fall by Democrats complaining he was little more than a Republican in disguise. His opponents trailed him for months with a float depicting his infamous kiss with President Bush. Clinton was one of 75 senators to vote in favor of the bill, according to the New York Times.

Already, Clinton's rivals were calling her out as a tool of the Bush administration for the vote. John Edwards said the sanctions resolution she supported was "eerily similar to what we saw with Iraq." He said, "I think it's very clear that Bush and Cheney have been rattling the saber about Iran for a very long time. And I said very clearly when this vote took place on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that it was important for us to stand up to them."

The Iran news is so fresh, and the NPR format so polite, that it's difficult to tell how much Clinton will be politically punished for this vote in coming weeks, Cooper wrote. But if last night's supposedly "muted" debate is any indication, once the gloves come off in coming weeks, it could get ugly.

Iris Scans Are The New Fingerprinting

No longer just the window to the soul, the eyes are now rapidly becoming the window to one's criminal history.

A growing number of sheriff's department are using iris scans to identify sex offenders, runaways, abducted children and wandering Alzheimer's patients, USA Today reports.

More than 2,100 departments in 27 states are taking digital pictures of eyes and storing the information in databases than can be searched later to identify a missing person or someone who uses a fake name, according to Sean Mullin, president of a company that sells the devices.

"This is the wave of the future. This will become as common as fingerprinting," said Sheriff Greg Solano of Santa Fe County, N.M. He says the level of detail and central database can make matches within seconds, compared to weeks for fingerprints and months for DNA.

Irises aren't affected by age, Lasik eye surgery or disease.

Barry Morse, CEO of Retica Systems, said that his company will deliver test devices to the Defense Department next year that will allow it to scan a crowd and store iris data for many people at once.

If it works, it will sort of give new meaning to the next time a politician says he's going to "look you in the eye" and promise something, won't it?

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