Flu epidemics have long been known to recur in a pattern. Solar magnetic activity (sunspots) has a similar pattern, recurring in an 11-year cycle. This coincidence prompted three Canadian researchers?an astrophysicist, an epidemiologist, and a physician? to look for a correlation between periods of peak sunspot activity and influenza epidemics.

Ken Tapping, a researcher at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory in British Columbia, and his two colleagues compared historical records of flu pandemics and solar flare activity dating back to the early 1700s. The group looked at how closely the infectious disease tracked with the years of peak activity. They found a definite tendency for flu epidemics to occur during periods of solar maxima, with statistics suggesting that the chance of the cycles being randomly coincidental was less than 2%.

The researchers did not speculate on a possible causative link between the two events, other than to say that ?the solar?environmental connection is well-established.? According to Tapping, ?Even though things like this sound a bit strange at the start, when you look around you find lots and lots of evidence that the sun is playing games in our environment.?

The incidence of asthma among children has been increasing steadily during the last few decades and the cause is a mystery. All sorts of reasons have been studied: dust mites, pollution, and even too little contact with bacteria, meaning that the immune system is weak.

Now a new study, reported in the July 28 New Scientist magazine, shows that campaigns to reduce heart disease by promoting polyunsaturated margarine and cooking oil could be responsible for the dramatic increase in childhood asthma in the developed world. Australian researchers have found that a diet high in polyunsaturated fats more than doubles a child?s risk of asthma.

Polyunsaturated fats contain high levels of omega-6 fatty acids, which can increase inflamation in the body. ?But at this stage, children should not be changing their diet,? says Michaelle Haby, of the Royal Children?s Hospital in Melbourne. ?We do not know whether changing the diet will reduce the risk or severity of asthma. That is the subject of ongoing investigation.?

The team studied around a thousand children ages 3 to 5. Based on detailed questionnaires, they estimate that a high level of polyunsaturated fats in the diet might account for 17% of the asthma cases in the children they studied.

It?s still unclear whether margarine is the culprit. ?I expect the increase in asthma is due to a combination of factors,? says Haby, ?one of which may be diet.?

New Scientist, No. 2301, July 28, 2001, page 19.

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