Epidemic influenza and vitamin D
J. J. CANNELL1*, R. VIETH2, J. C. UMHAU3, M. F. HOLICK4, W. B. GRANT5,
S. MADRONICH6, C. F. GARLAND7AND E. GIOVANNUCCI8
1Atascadero State Hospital, 10333 El Camino Real, Atascadero, CA, USA
2Mount Sinai Hospital, Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Department of Medicine, Toronto, Ontario,
3Laboratory of Clinical and Translational Studies, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism,
National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD
4Departments of Medicine and Physiology, Boston University School of Medicine, Boston, MA, USA
5SUNARC, San Francisco, CA, USA
6Atmospheric Chemistry Division, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, CO, USA
7Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, University of California San Diego, La Jolla, CA, USA
8Departments of Nutrition and Epidemiology, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, MA, USA
(Accepted 5 August 2006)
In 1981, R. Edgar Hope-Simpson proposed that a ‘seasonal stimulus’ intimately associated with
solar radiation explained the remarkable seasonality of epidemic influenza. Solar radiation triggers
robust seasonal vitamin D production in the skin; vitamin D deficiency is common in the winter,
and activated vitamin D, 1,25(OH)2D, a steroid hormone, has profound effects on human
immunity. 1,25(OH)2D acts as an immune system modulator, preventing excessive expression
of inflammatory cytokines and increasing the ‘oxidative burst’ potential of macrophages. Perhaps
most importantly, it dramatically stimulates the expression of potent anti-microbial peptides,
which exist in neutrophils, monocytes, natural killer cells, and in epithelial cells lining the
respiratory tract where they play a major role in protecting the lung from infection. Volunteers
inoculated with live attenuated influenza virus are more likely to develop fever and serological
evidence of an immune response in the winter. Vitamin D deficiency predisposes children to
respiratory infections. Ultraviolet radiation (either from artificial sources or from sunlight) reduces
the incidence of viral respiratory infections, as does cod liver oil (which contains vitamin D). An
interventional study showed that vitamin D reduces the incidence of respiratory infections in
children. We conclude that vitamin D, or lack of it, may be Hope-Simpson’s ‘seasonal stimulus’.
Whoever wishes to investigate medicine properly should
proceed thus: in the first place to consider the seasons of the
(circa 400 B.C.)
… the characteristic microbe of a disease might be a
symptom instead of a cause.
George Bernard Shaw
(Preface on Doctors, The Doctor’s Dilemma, 1911)
Perhaps the most mysterious feature of epidemic
influenza is its remarkable and recurrent seasonality –
feature first explored in detail by R. Edgar Hope-
Simpson, theBritish general
summertimescarcity – a
* Author for correspondence: Dr J. J. Cannell, Atascadero State
Hospital, 10333 El Camino Real, Atascadero, CA 93422, USA.
Epidemiol. Infect., Page 1 of 12.
f 2006 Cambridge University Press
Printed in the United Kingdom
self-educated epidemiologist. After his celebrated dis-
coveries of the cause of shingles  and the latency of
of his working life to the epidemiology of influenza.
He believed that discovering the cause of influenza’s
seasonality would ‘provide the key to understanding
most of the influenzal problems confronting us’ .
Hope-Simpson was the first to document that
influenza A epidemics in temperate latitudes peak in
the month following the winter solstice (Fig. 1). In
both hemispheres, influenza rates rise significantly
for about 2 months on either side of its peak.
Outbreaks are globally ubiquitous and epidemic loci move
smoothly to and fro across the surface of the earth almost
every year in a sinuous curve that runs parallel with the
midsummer curve of vertical solar radiation, but lags about
six months behind it … Latitude alone broadly determines
the timing of the epidemics in the annual cycle, a relation-
ship that suggests a rather direct effect of some component
of solar radiation acting positively or negatively upon the
virus, the human host, or their interaction … The nature of
the seasonal stimulus remains undiscovered .
Thus, he hypothesized that solar radiation produced
a ‘seasonal stimulus’ that profoundly affected the
pathogenesis of influenza A – but he had no idea of
the mechanism. However, Hope-Simpson believed
epidemiologists would eventually succeed with ‘the
task of identifying the chain of intermediate mechan-
isms through which the prime cause (the variation
in solar radiation) is operating its seasonal influence’
[3, p. 87].
Although serological and culture evidence of influ-
enza infection has been documented in the summer,
it seldom causes community outbreaks in summer
[5–7]. About 2% of persons continuously surveyed
seroconvert during periods when clinical influenza is
not recognized . In spite of being in the population
year-round, epidemics in temperate latitudes usually
peak in winter [9–13]. Furthermore, Hope-Simpson
noted that ‘epidemics of influenza often occur con-
temporaneously at the same latitude even in localities
widely separated by longitude’ [4, p. 43]. He noted
influenza would abruptly attack 15% or more of the
population around the winter solstice but virtually
disappear in the sunny months despite a wealth of
potential victims lacking virus-specific antibodies.
Hope-Simpson saw solar radiation as a stronger
predictor of influenza epidemics than the presence
of virus-specific antibodies. For example, Miller et al.
 reported that the Hong Kong virus was first
isolated in Britain in August 1968 but it did not
Latitude zone Quarter 1
N. temperate 30
N. 30° +
023·5° S23·5° S
Monthly percentage of total epidemic months in each zone
S. 30° +
Apr·May·Jun Jul·Aug·Sep Oct·Nov·Dec
Quarter 2Quarter 3Quarter 4
Path of vertical solar radiation
Fig. 1. The seasonal and latitudinal distribution of
outbreaks of type A influenza in the world, 1964–1975,
summarized from the Weekly Epidemiological Record of the
World Health Organization into major zones. The diagrams
show for each calendar month the percentage of each zone’s
total outbreaks. In both north and south temperate zones
the epidemics are distributed around the local midwinter,
whereas the tropical zones show a transition, each approxi-
mating towards the distribution of its own temperate zone.
The curve indicates the ‘midsummer’ path taken annually
by vertical solar radiation. The ‘epidemic path’ seems to
parallel it, but to lag 6 months behind it. (Reproduced with
permission, Cambridge University Press, Hope-Simpson,
S O N D J F M A M J J A S O N D J F M A
1969 1968 1970
Influenza case rates/100 000
Fig. 2. Weekly consultation rates for illnesses diagnosed
clinically as influenza or influenza-like, calculated from re-
turns to the General Practice Research Unit of the Royal
College of General Practitioners from about 40 general
practices in various parts of England, Scotland and Wales,
serving a population of about 150000 persons, 1968–1970.
(Reproduced/amended with permission, BMJ Publishing
Group, Miller et al.)
2J. J. Cannell and others
cause significant summertime illness despite being a
new antigenic variant in a non-immune population
(Fig. 2). However, clinical case rates increased in
intensity as the sun became progressively lower in
the sky each day (autumn), waiting until the winter
solstice of 1968 before the first community outbreaks
appeared. Influenza case rates peaked for several
months but waned as the sun rose higher in the sky
each day (spring). Predictably, influenza virtually
ceased following the summer solstice. Clinical case
rates for Hong Kong influenza increased from
September 1969, only to explode again in the days
preceding the winter solstice, even though a much
higher proportion of the British population had virus-
specific antibodies at the beginning of the lethal
second wave than they did at the beginning of its
less lethal first wave.
Hope-Simpson also observed that influenza out-
breaks in the tropics, where solar UV radiation is less
seasonal, are also much less seasonal, but are gener-
ally more severe when solar radiation is impaired (the
rainy season) – observations recently confirmed .
This intimate association with sunlight led the natu-
ralist in Hope-Simpson to see influenza as a winter
‘crop, and, as with other crops, some years are good
influenza years, and other years produce a poor crop
of influenza cases’ [3, p. 92].
Influenza is but one of several respiratory viral
pathogens that show a distinct predilection for
infecting us in the wintertime. Noah found that in
England and Wales respiratory syncytial virus and
parainfluenza 1 and 2 display marked wintertime
excess . More than 200 viruses cause the common
cold, which, as the name implies, also shows a distinct
wintertime excess . However, in clinical practice,
and in much published research, specific identifi-
cation of respiratory viral infections is frequently
absent. With full appreciation of its inherent limi-
tations, we will use the term viral respiratory infection
in this review, unless the literature cited was more
The seasonal stimulus?
As Hope-Simpson pointed out, solar radiation may
be affecting the ‘virus, the human host, or their
interaction …’. That is, he theorized that humans
might have a physiological system directly dependent
on solar radiation that improves innate immunity
around the summer solstice but impairs it in the
winter. There is a seasonal steroid hormone system
with profound effects on human immunity whose
substrate levels reach their nadir during influenza
season but peak when influenza is rare (Fig. 3) [18, 19].
Cholecalciferol (vitamin D) is a prehormone
normally made in the skin during sunny months
when UVB radiation triggers the conversion of 7-
dehydrocholesterol in the skin into vitamin D .
The liver converts vitamin D into 25-hydroxyvitamin
D [25(OH)D] and then cells all over the body
[1,25(OH)2D] – a potent steroid hormone. Locally
produced 1,25(OH)2D performs autocrine and para-
crine functions in a wide variety of tissues, including
the immune system. Local tissue levels of 1,25(OH)2D
aredependent on available
[25(OH)D]. Dangers of vitamin D deficiency may
include more than just low 25(OH)D levels. Vieth has
proposed that progressively falling serum levels of
25(OH)D (as occurs in the autumn), may trigger
intracellular deficiencies of 1,25(OH)2D, despite
apparently adequate serum levels of 25(OH)D and
Many distinctive features of the biology, physi-
ology, and epidemiology of vitamin D point to it
as a likely candidate for Hope-Simpson’s ‘seasonal
(1) Vitamin D has profound and multiple effects on
human immunity [22, 23].
(2) Inadequate vitamin D nutrition is endemic among
the elderly in the winter [24–26].
(3) Serum levels of 25(OH)D are low in many
people of all ages who live at temperate latitudes,
especially in the winter .
(4) Humans acquire most of their vitamin D
from casual sun exposure, and to a degree that
Aug. Sep.Oct.Nov.Dec. Jan. Feb.
Fig. 3. Seasonal variation of 25(OH)D levels in a popu-
lation-based sample of inhabitants of a small southern
German town, aged 50–80 years. (Reproduced/amended
with kind permission of Springer Science and Business
Media, Scharla, S.H., 1998.)
Epidemic influenza and vitamin D3
is a function of skin surface area exposed
(5) The elderly only make about 25% of the vitamin
D as 20-year-olds do after exposure to the same
amount of sunlight .
(6) Seasonal variations – and vitamin D deficiency –
occur in both subtropical and tropical latitudes
(7) Routine daily supplementation with 400 IU of
vitamin D does not prevent wintertime insuf-
Mechanism of action of vitamin D
The pathology of influenza involves a complex
interaction between the virus, acquired immunity, and
innate immunity. Macrophages rapidly release cyto-
kines into infected respiratory tissue while virucidal
antimicrobial peptides attempt to prevent viral repli-
cation . The release of proinflammatory cytokines,
as much as the virulence of the virus, may determine
the clinical phenotype of influenza infection. Recent
research confirms that the clinical phenotype of
influenza correlates well with amount of cytokines
released [34, 35]. Furthermore, the severity of the
illness induced by genetically reproduced 1918 influ-
enza virus also correlates with the ability of the virus
to induce macrophage production of cytokines .
In avian influenza, the innate cytokine immune re-
sponse can be overwhelming; levels of such cytokines
are significantly higher in those with a fatal outcome
Recently, vitamin D has been found to modulate
macrophages’ response, preventing them from re-
leasing too many inflammatory cytokines and chemo-
kines [39, 40]. Vitamin D deficiency also impairs
the ability of macrophages to mature, to produce
macrophage-specific surface antigens, to produce the
lysosomal enzyme acid phosphatase, and to secrete
H2O2, a function integral to their antimicrobial
function [41, 42]. The same authors found that the
addition of 1,25(OH)2D increased expression of
macrophage-specific surface antigens and the lyso-
somal enzyme acid phosphatase while stimulating
their ‘oxidative burst’ function.
Perhaps most importantly, three independent re-
search groups have recently shown that 1,25(OH)2D
dramatically stimulates genetic expression of anti-
microbial peptides (AMP) in human monocytes,
neutrophils, and other human cell lines [43–45].
These endogenous antibiotics, such as defensins and
cathelicidins, directly destroy invading microorgan-
isms . AMP display broad-spectrum antimicrobial
activity, including antiviral activity, and have been
shown to inactivate the influenza virus [47–49]. Not
only do neutrophils, macrophages, and natural killer
cells secrete AMP, but epithelial cells lining the upper
and lower respiratory tract secrete them as well, where
they play a major role in pulmonary defence [50, 51].
Influenza and solar radiation
In spite of people congregating on cruise ships, air-
planes, nursing homes, factories, offices, subways,
hospitals, etc., summertime outbreaks and the spread
of influenza A are rare [52, 53]. Curwen found a
strong inverse correlation between the incidence of
influenza and temperature in England and Wales ,
temperature being strongly associated with solar
radiation . He found average monthly tempera-
ture dropped below around 7 xC during the influenza
season. It is of interest that no vitamin D is made in
the skin at latitude 52x N (the latitude of London)
from about October to March because atmospheric
ozone easily filters out UVB radiation unless the
sun is high enough in the sky .
Annual all-cause mortality peaks in the months
following the winter solstice and most excess winter-
time mortality is in the elderly, due to both influenza
and cardiac disease; some believe influenza explains
all the significant wintertime increase in cardiac
mortality . The average excess winter mortality in
Great Britain alone is 30000 persons per year ,
and is inversely related to hours of sunlight with 2.9%
lower odds for every additional hour of sunshine;
mortality from respiratorydisease showed the greatest
If vitamin D is Hope-Simpson’s ‘seasonal stimu-
lus’, then countries with low 25(OH)D levels and
marked wintertime troughs should have higher ex-
cess wintertime mortality than do countries with
high 25(OH)D levels and little seasonal variation.
For example, Norway has the highest 25(OH)D
levels in Europe (thought to be due to its high
year-round consumption of fish and cod liver oil)
. Levels of 25(OH)D in Scandinavia display
the least seasonal variation in Europe; indeed there
is virtually no 25(OH)D seasonal variation among
the elderly in Scandinavia . On the other hand, the
elderly in Great Britain have low 25(OH)D levels
and such deficiencies are much more common
during the influenza season . Excess wintertime
4 J. J. Cannell and others
mortality is twice as high in Great Britain as in
Global weather changes are associated with El
Nin ˜ o/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) . Viboud et al.
found an average of 3.7 million influenza cases in
France during the 10 cold phases of ENSO but only
1.8 million cases during the eight warm phases .
The same authors reported that cold ENSO phases
are associated with colder temperatures in Europe.
Colder temperatures should lower mean serum
population 25(OH)D levels by lessening outdoor
activity and necessitating more clothes when out-
doors. Ebi et al. studied six Californian counties and
found that hospitalizations for viral pneumonia
peaked around the winter solstice in all six counties
. They also found hospitalizations increased
30–50% for every 5 xF (3 xC) decrease in minimum
temperatures in four counties and increased 25–40%
for every 5 xF (3 xC) decrease in maximum tempera-
tures in the other two.
Hope-Simpson was the first to note an association
between severe influenza epidemics and solar flare
activity . In 1990, Hoyle and Wickramasinghe
confirmed the association but von Alvensleben dis-
puted it [67, 68]. Horgan  promptly derided the
observations, connecting them to viral invasions from
outer space, a theory Hope-Simpson dismissed in his
1992 book . Since the controversy, science has
learned that solar flare activity increases high-altitude
ozone, which, in turn, absorbs more UVB radiation
thereby decreasing surface UVB . Thus, para-
doxically, heightened solar activity reduces surface
UVB; presumably, average 25(OH)D levels would be
lower as well. Rozema et al. estimated the variations
in surface UVB radiation due to the solar flare activity
over the last 300 years and estimated that, beginning
in the eighteenth century, ‘the dose of surface UV-B
should be (about) 4% to 13% lower at maxima of
the 11-year solar cycle’ . Although modest, such
reoccurring decreases in UVB radiation should trigger
reductions in average 25(OH)D levels, which, in turn,
could trigger nonlinear factors related to influenza
Melanin retards the ability of sunlight to trigger
vitamin D production in African-Americans’ skin so
they have much lower 25(OH)D levels than do whites
. If vitamin D is Hope-Simpson’s ‘seasonal
stimulus’ then African-Americans should have a
higher incidence of influenza and higher age-adjusted
influenza mortality than do whites. Although we
could find no racial incidence data, the age-adjusted
mortality from combined pneumonia and influenza
deaths in the United States was higher for African-
Americans than for whites in 2000 (10% excess), 2001
(11% excess), and 2002 (6% excess) [73–75]. The
same statistics show African-Americans have a much
higher age-adjusted mortality from heart disease,
and a significant percentage of those who die from
influenza are reported to have suffered a cardiac death
[76, 77]. Furthermore, black children continue to
have twice the pneumonia mortality of white
children . While some of these racial disparities
may be due to socioeconomic factors, racial differ-
ences in 25(OH)D levels may also be important.
Attenuated influenza virus, the effect of season
If vitamin D is Hope-Simpson’s ‘seasonal stimulus’,
then humans inoculated with attenuated viruses
during the summer [when 25(OH)D levels peak]
should show less evidence of infection than those in-
oculated in winter. Shadrin et al. inoculated 834 non-
immune males (age 16–18 years) with live attenuated
influenza virus (B/Dushabbe/66 and B/Leningrad/2/
67) in St Petersburg (62x N) and Krasnodar, Russia
(45x N), during different seasons of the year, com-
paring them to 414 vehicle placebo controls . In
St Petersburg, they found that the attenuated virus
was about eight times more likely to cause physical
evidence of infection (fever) in the winter than
the summer (6.7% vs. 0.8%). In Krasnodar, 8% of
inoculated subjects developed a fever from the virus
in January, but only 0.1% did so in May.
inoculation with attenuated H3N2(221 subjects) was
twice as likely in February (10.7%) as in June (5%),
compared to vehicle placebo controls . They also
confirmed that seroconversion varied by season, with
the lowest rate of antibody formation in summer.
When they attempted to recover the virus 48–72 h
after inoculation, they found subjects were more
likely to shed the virus in December (40%) than in
September (16%), and the quantity of virus shed was
significantly lower in summer than winter.
Vitamin D deficiency and viral respiratory infections
If vitamin D is Hope-Simpson’s ‘seasonal stimulus’,
then vitamin D deficiency should predispose patients
to respiratory infections. Rickets is the classic
vitamin D-deficient disease of childhood and a
long-standing association exists between rickets and
Epidemic influenza and vitamin D5
respiratory infection [81–88]. Mechanical impair-
ment of pulmonary function due to clinical rickets is
widely thought to explain the association. However,
Wayse et al. recently compared 80 non-rachitic
children with lower respiratory infections to healthy
controls and found children with 25(OH)D levels
<10 ng/ml were 11 times more likely to be infected
. This discovery makes it likely that it is vitamin
D deficiency per se, and not mechanical impairment
of pulmonary function, that explains the long-
standing association of rickets with pulmonary
UV radiation and viral respiratory infections
It is generally accepted that erythemal doses of UV
radiation, suppress human immune function [90, 91].
However, Termorshuizen et al. recently reviewed the
literature on immune function and UVR, concluding
it is dangerous to assume that such suppression will
result in an increased incidence of infectious disease
. Furthermore, sub-erythemal doses of UVR,
unlike erythemal doses, actually improve phagocytic
activity in human volunteers. For example, Krause
et al. reported that a 6- to 8-week course of sub-
erythemal doses of UVR doubled the phagocytic
activity in 21 children with recurrent respiratory
tract infections . Likewise, Csato et al. found five
sub-erythemal doses of UVR increased polymorpho-
nuclear chemotaxis in normal volunteers .
In 1990, Gigineishvili et al. administered sub-
erythemal courses of UVR twice a year for 3 years to
410 teenage Russian athletes and compared them
to 446 non-irradiated athletes . The non-UVR
controls had 50% more respiratory viral infections,
300% more days of absences and 30% longer
duration of illness than did the UVR subjects. The
irradiated subjects also had significant increases in
salivary IgA, IgG and IgM compared to controls. In
2004, Termorshuizen et al. found that parents of
Dutch children with the least sun exposure were twice
as likely to report that their child developed a cough,
and were three times as likely to report their child had
a runny nose, compared to children with the most
Cod liver oil and viral respiratory infections
Recently, Semba reviewed early literature on fish liver
oils given as an ‘anti-infective’ . These oils contain
large amounts of vitamin D. All five cod liver oil
studies listed by Semba showed it reduced the inci-
dence of respiratory infections. Two controlled
studies in the 1930s found similar results: the first
found cod liver oil given to 185 adults for 4 months
reduced colds by 50%; in the second study it reduced
industrial absenteeism due to respiratory infections in
1561 adults by 30% [98, 99]. In 2004, Linday et al.
reported that 600–700 IU of vitamin D, given as cod
liver oil and a multivitamin, significantly reduced the
mean number of upper respiratory tract visits over
time when given to 47 young (mean age 2 years)
New York City children from late autumn to early
May, whereas in a medical record control site group,
no decrease occurred over time . Assuming the
average 2-year-old weighs 13 kg, an equivalent dose in
a 70 kg adult would be about 3500 IU/day.
Intervention with vitamin D. We are aware of only
one modern paper that directly examined the relation-
ship between vitamin D and respiratory infections.
Rehman, in a letter, reported giving 60000 IU of
vitamin D a week and 650 mg of calcium daily for
6 weeks to 27 non-rachitic children (aged 3–12 years)
with elevated alkaline phosphatases who were also
suffering from frequent childhood infections, mostly
respiratory infections . He compared them to
20 age- and-sex matched control children who had not
had more than one infectious episode per child during
the previous 6 months. During the 6 months of ob-
servation after treatment, no difference was observed
in the frequency of infection between the test and
control groups of children. In fact, Rehman reported,
‘no recurrences were reported for a period of six
months’, in the treated children.
The most common explanation for the seasonality of
viral respiratory infections is that humans congregate
indoors in the winter, thus increasing the chance for
contagion. However, as Sir Christopher Andrewes
pointed out, people also congregate indoors during
the summer .
Many people regard (crowding) as the likeliest ‘winter fac-
tor’ to explain the facts (wintertime excess of respiratory
infections). I have always had doubts about this. Indoor
workers in towns spend their working hours in much the
same way winter and summer; they are cheek-by-jowl in
their offices or at the factory bench or canteen all through
the year … If close contact were all, one would think the
London Transport would ensure an all-the-year epidemic.
6 J. J. Cannell and others
Summertime deaths due to influenza are rare except
during pandemics – even during pandemics, most
deaths occur during the colder months. Nor does the
indoor theory of contagion explain why the adminis-
tration of live attenuated influenza virus produces
such seasonal results in non-immune volunteers, while
the vitamin D theory would predict exactly such
observations due to the stimulation of antimicrobial
proteins and a suppression of cytokine response
during the summer when UVB radiation induces the
production of vitamin D. An indoor theory of con-
tagion has difficulty explaining the strong association
between vitamin D-deficient rickets (and simple
vitamin D deficiency in non-rachitic children) and
childhood infections, while the vitamin D theory
explains both. Furthermore, the indoor contagion
theory cannot explain why age-adjusted influenza
deaths are more common among African-Americans
than whites, whereas the striking racial differences in
25(OH)D levels readily explain it. Nor can an indoor
theory explain the observations regarding sunlight,
artificial UVB, cod liver oil, and supplemental
Eccles proposed that cooling of the nasal airways,
which reduces mucociliary clearance and phagocytic
activity, may explain the seasonality of viral respirat-
ory infections . The same group produced evi-
dence in a controlled trial that chilling of the feet
causes about 10% more subjects than controls to
report the delayed onset of cold symptoms .
Furthermore, the common folklore that respiratory
infections often follow exposure to cold air or to
chilling of the body by wet hair, feet, or clothes is
pervasive and unlikely to be entirely superstitious.
Although this theory has evidence to support it and
may explain some of the seasonality of respiratory
infections, it, like the indoor contagion theory, fails
to explain the observations detailed above while the
vitamin D theory has plausible, albeit inadequately
tested, explanations for them all.
Dosage of vitamin D
The seasonality hypothesis proposed here relates to
sun-derived vitamin D. However, if vitamin D might
be effective in preventing seasonal respiratory infec-
tions, then the daily oral dosage required for an effect
remains to be addressed. Both the hypothesis and the
clinical trials. A likely dose requirement can be esti-
The critical question of ‘What is an ideal 25(OH)D
level?’ must be answered, ‘In regard to what?’ Levels
needed to prevent rickets and osteomalacia (10 ng/ml)
are lower than those that dramatically suppress
parathormone levels (20 ng/ml) . In turn, those
levels are lower than those needed to increase intes-
tinal calcium absorption maximally (34 ng/ml) .
In turn, neuromuscular performance in 4100 elderly
patients steadily improved as 25(OH)D levels in-
creased and maximum performance was associated
with levels of 50 ng/ml . If levels of 50 ng/ml are
associated with further benefits, such as preventing
viral respiratory infections, we are only now learning
about it. Until more is known, it may be prudent
to maintain wintertime 25(OH)D at concentrations
achieved in nature by summertime sun exposure
There are a number of factors to consider regarding
the most appropriate dose of vitamin D. One minimal
erythemal exposure of the full-body to artificial UVB
radiation triggers the release of about 20000 IU of
vitamin D into the circulation of light-skinned
persons within 48 h . There was no evidence of
toxicity in young men taking 50000 IU of vitamin D
a day for 6 weeks (although such a dose would be
toxic if taken over a longer period) . In 32
vitamin D-deficient elderly patients, 50000 IU/day of
vitamin D for 10 days showed no evidence of toxicity
and only raised 25(OH)D levels by an average of
5 ng/ml 3 months after administration and in no
patient did levels exceed 13 ng/ml at 3 months
. Single injections of 600000 IU (15 mg) raised
25(OH)D levels from 2 ng/ml to 22 ng/ml at 2 weeks
and to 26 ng/ml at 6 weeks in ten elderly subjects with
no evidence of toxicity . Indeed, a single injection
of 600000 IU of vitamin D is safe; such doses were
recently recommended for the elderly to prevent
vitamin D deficiency . These studies indicate
short-term administration of pharmacological doses
of vitamin D is safe.
A vitamin D intake of 2000 IU/day for 1 year failed
to achieve a 32 ng/ml target 25(OH)D concentration
in 40% of the post-menopausal African-American
women studied . Administration of 4000 IU/day
of vitamin D for more than 6 months to middle-age
Canadian endocrinology outpatients, resulted in
average 25(OH)D levels of 44 ng/ml and produced
no side-effects other than an improved mood
. Heaney has estimated that about 3000 IU/day
of vitamin D is required to assure that 97% of
Americans obtain levels >35 ng/ml . Dosage will
Epidemic influenza and vitamin D7
depend upon age, latitude, season, skin type, body
weight, sun exposure, and pre-existing 25(OH)D
levels. Some groups – African-Americans, the obese,
and the elderly – may require supplementation with
5000 IU/day during winter but less, or none, during
the summer to obtain 25(OH)D levels of 50 ng/ml.
These studies indicate that ideal daily doses of vitamin
D exceed current recommendations by an order of
If the ability of vitamin D to stimulate the pro-
duction of virucidal antimicrobial peptides and to
suppress cytokine and chemokine production is
clinically significant, then pharmacological doses
(1000–2000 IU/kg per day for several days) may be
useful in the treatment of those viral respiratory
infections that peak in wintertime. Physicians have
successfully used pharmacological doses of vitamin D
to prevent vitamin D deficiency, to prevent metabolic
bone disease, and to treat severe hypoparathyroidism.
Perhaps such doses have other effects, such as ameli-
orating symptoms of viral respiratory infections. As
pointed out in a 1999 paper that heralded the current
interest in the nutrient, the pharmacological potential
of vitamin D remains unexplored .
There is much evidence to suggest that vitamin D may
be Hope-Simpson’s seasonal stimulus. Nevertheless,
it is premature to recommend vitamin D for either
the prevention or treatment of viral respiratory
infections. It is not, however, too early to recommend
that health-care providers aggressively diagnose
and adequately treat vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D
deficiency is endemic and has been associated with
many of the diseases of civilization [117, 118]. Vitamin
D supplementation should stabilize 25(OH)D con-
centrations consistent with levels obtained by natural
summertime sun exposure (50 ng/ml) while avoiding
toxic levels. Those with large amounts of melanin in
their skin, the obese, those who avoid the sun, and
the aged may need up to 5000 IU/day to obtain such
levels, especially in the winter.
The theory that vitamin D affects the course of viral
respiratory infections should be tested. Are patients
with low 25(OH)D levels more likely to contract viral
respiratory infections? Does the clinical course
correlate with 25(OH)D levels? Do patients with
influenza have lower 25(OH)D levels than uninfected
controls? Does sun exposure correlate with infection?
Are patients who take physiological doses of vitamin
D less likely to become infected? Should the concept
of human herd immunity (the immune pressure on the
virus due to the percentage of the population with
acquired immunity) be expanded to include innate
herd immunity [the immune pressure on the virus
due to the percentage of the population with adequate
25(OH)D levels]? Is influenza infection a sign of
vitamin D deficiency as much as Pneumocystis carinii
pneumonia is a sign of AIDS? Does the adminis-
tration of pharmacological doses of vitamin D,
early in the course of a viral respiratory infection,
ameliorate symptoms? As the annual mortality from
influenza approaches one million worldwide, further
studies testing this theory are warranted .
Today, in a rush from multiplex reverse trans-
criptase–polymerase chain reactions that rapidly
subtype influenza viruses to complex mathematical
formulas that explain its infectivity, many of us have
forgotten Hope-Simpson’s simple ‘seasonal stimulus’
theory for the lethal crop of influenza that sprouts
around the winter solstice. The faith and humility that
characterized his life and his writings insulated him
from despairing that his ‘seasonal stimulus’ would
not be sought. Among his last published words was
the suggestion that ‘it might be rewarding if persons,
who are in a position to do so, will look more closely
at the operative mechanisms that are causing such
seasonal behavior’ [3, p. 241].
We thank Professor Norman Noah of the London
School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Professor
Robert Scragg of the University of Auckland and
Professor Robert Heaney of Creighton University for
reviewing the manuscript and making many useful
DECLARATION OF INTEREST
Dr Cannell heads the non-profit educational group,
‘The Vitamin D Council’.
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