Would you risk catching the flu for $1,900? Maryland study to look at spread of illness

If the University of Maryland researchers' hypothesis is correct, their work could lead to improved air circulation in buildings

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Nobody likes getting the flu. The sore throat, the stuffy nose, the coughing, the fevers and chills -- there's not much to like, and it's certainly not something most people would choose, if they had the option.

But if getting sick could put $1,900 in your bank account, many people would consider it.

To figure out how the flu is transmitted, researchers at UMD are conducting "a first-of-its-kind study" -- and recruiting some brave, paid participants.

The University of Maryland School of Public Health in College Park and the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore are trying to learn more about how illness spreads. Their two-month study needs people willing to quarantine in a hotel with flu-infected people, likely getting infected themselves.

The goal is to better determine how the virus infects us every flu season.

"Nobody has successfully observed influenza transmission under controlled conditions," said Dr. Donald Milton of UMD's School of Public Health. "It has never been done."

There could be a number of factors that play a role in the flu's spread and infectiousness, and we need more information, the researchers say.


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"There also might be the airborne component, and we just need to think about it when we get more of the data," said Dr. Wilbur Chen of UMD's School of Medicine.

Milton and Chen are leading the study, which will recruit both healthy patients and those who are in the early, onset days of the flu. The patients will mingle together in the same air-controlled environment, playing games, talking and watching TV to mimic a gathering.

"We just need to be able to capture it and monitor it very closely while on the quarantine unit," Chen said.

"That then will tell us, if people get infected when the air quality is very poor, but not when the air quality is very good, that will tell us that they were getting it by breathing," Milton explained.

What the study's findings may show

If the researchers' flu transmission hypothesis proves to be true, they say it could serve as the catalyst for a change in public health policy. Their goal is to spark improved air circulation in buildings.

"We can help make people healthier that way," Milton said. "Colds are one of the main ways that people end up with severe asthma attacks, end up in the hospital."

The multi-million dollar study uses money from the National Institutes of Health. It will include medical devices to measure the number of virus particles in exhaled air, and to test UV lights and air filters.

"I figured this will be a good opportunity to just kind of take a look and experience how studies are being conducted so that I can make my own judgment," said Matthew Tan, one of the study participants.

Researchers have already recruited the healthy volunteers, but Friday is when they're recruiting participants with the flu.

To qualify, adults between the age of 18 and 59 must have:

  • A cough or sore throat
  • A fever of at least 100.2 and
  • A positive flu test

All volunteers will stay at the Lord Baltimore Hotel, with all expenses paid. They'll also get up to $1,900.

The results of the study are expected in the spring.

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