CDC revises flu death estimates
How many people does the flu kill each year in the United States? The number you always hear is about 36,000. Well, federal health officials on Thursday released some new calculations that conclude that number is misleading. The actual number can vary a lot from year to year, ranging from as few as about 3,000 to as many as about 49,000, according to a new analysis from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There's long been a lot of debate about that number of U.S. flu deaths each year. In fact, that number became especially important this past year because of the H1N1 pandemic. The pandemic turned out to be far less severe than many had feared. In the United States, it has only been linked directly officially to perhaps about 12,000. That has prompted criticism that public health authorities at the CDC and World Health Organization exaggerated the risk posed by the pandemic, prompting countries to waste billions of dollars on vaccine and other measures.
Health officials have been quick to point out that while the total number of deaths may have been far lower than many had feared and that can occur in a typical flu season, the type of person who died was quite different. In a typical flu season, most of the people who die are the elderly. In contrast, H1N1 tended to spare the elderly and hit younger, often otherwise healthy adults and children unusually hard.
The reason it's hard to say exactly how many people die because of the flu is that it's often not listed as the official cause of death on death certificates -- it's just listed as pneumonia. But flu can contribute to the deaths of people who are sick with something else, such as heart failure or lung disease.
The CDC says the 36,000 figure comes from an analysis of data from the 1990s, when a strains of flu virus known as H3N2, which tends to take a higher toll, was dominant. In the new calculations, published in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the CDC analyzed data from the 31 flu seasons that occurred between 1976 through 2007.
The average number of deaths was 23,607. But the CDC found that there was a very wide range, from as few as 3,349 died in the 1986-1987 flu season but as many as 49,614 in the 2003-2004 season. The difference from year to year was largely due to the strain of flu virus that was circulating. For example, seasons when H3N2 viruses were prominent had nearly triple the number of flu-associated deaths than in years when influenza A or influenza B viruses were prominent.
August 26, 2010; 12:35 PM ET
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