Sunday, June 10, 2012

Did Michael Jordan really have the flu?

During an off day between Games 4 and 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals, Michael Jordan got incredibly sick with fever to 103F and vomiting. The series was tied, 2-2, and the whole world wondered how he could possibly play with the flu. When he played, he required IVs at half time and collapsed into Scotty Pippen's arms at the end of the game.

Since we are slowly shifting the blog to cover the NBA and since today is the 15th anniversary of Michael Jordan's famous "flu game," I thought we should reflect back as epidemiologists to see what caused his acute illness. Did he really have "the flu" caused by an influenza virus infection or did he just pick up norovirus from one of his young kids (ages 8, 6 and 4 at the time) or ingest a bad pizza?

Today, DJ Gallo at discussed how selfish it was for Jordan to play since he really could have hurt his team and started a flu outbreak in Utah. Jamal Mashburn, of Kentucky and "Faces of Influenza" campaign fame seems to think Jordan had influenza and wondered if he was vaccinated.

The 1996-1997 Influenza Season was a moderate to severe one in the Northern Hemisphere with H3N2 viruses predominating. Of course June was pretty late for influenza as the MMWR stated that "influenza A(H3N2) viruses were isolated from sporadic cases in the United States during March and April. In addition, two nursing home outbreaks associated with influenza A(H3N2) were reported: one in Delaware during March and one in California during June...influenza B viruses were isolated more frequently than influenza A(H3N2) viruses after mid-February."  So maybe Jordan visited a friend or relative at a California nursing home or had influenza B?

Rick Weinberg's report of the game for's "100 most memorable moments" series sheds the most light on Jordan's condition:

"He remembers waking up in the middle of the night, sweating profusely, shaking, and feeling as if he was going to die... At first, he thought it was a nightmare. Then he realized it was real, that he was seriously ill. "I felt partially paralyzed," he would later say. When he lifted himself up from his bed in his Utah hotel room, his head began spinning. He'd never been so nauseated before. He feared that somehow, some way, someone had slipped some kind of drug in something he ate...  Jordan called the Bulls' medical personnel, which came rushing to his room. They determined that he was suffering from food poisoning or an intestinal stomach virus. "There's no way you'll be able to play Game 5," Jordan was told. Jordan remains in bed for the next 24 hours, missing the Bulls' morning practices the day before and the day of Game 5. He had lost several pounds. He was dehydrated."

I think most of us would agree that Michael Jordan probably had a virus other than influenza virus.  Yet we don't know if he was tested for influenza or other viruses and since HIPAA was enacted in 1996, we may never know.

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