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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.

By Rob Stein  |  August 26, 2010; 12:35 PM ET
Categories:  Influenza  
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CDC revises flu death estimates


Posted by: kkrimmer | August 26, 2010 12:36 PM | Report abuse

The CDC, FDA and the EPA are not reliable sources of information anymore. They lie and people die. The WHO wildly exaggerated the H1N1 Swine Flu. Obama foolishly spent billions on an unnecessary and dangerous flu vaccine to enrich his friends in the pharmaceutical industry.

The FDA can't manage food or drug safety. They are nothing but a trade organization for the food and drug industries.

The EPA said at first - be careful of oil dispersants used by BP. Then they flip flopped and said: go ahead and poison the Gulf of Mexico.

Posted by: alance | August 26, 2010 5:50 PM | Report abuse

The flu vaccine is available right now in the Denver, Colorado area. I'm getting my flu shot tomorrow. I checked the CDC website, and its not too early to get vaccinated. The vaccine will stay effective throughout the flu season. H1N1 put me in intensive care and rehab last year. It was a terrible experience. It takes 10 minutes to get a flu shot. If you go into a coma, it takes 10 WEEKS to be able to walk, drive your car, hold a cup of cofee. Much, much easier to just get the shot!

Posted by: AnnsThought | August 27, 2010 12:12 AM | Report abuse

It is not the flu that is dangerous - it is the vaccine.

The Finnish National Institute for Health (THL) proposed suspending vaccinations for H1N1 swine flu, due to suspected links to increased narcolepsy in children and adolescents, the body announced this week.

Six cases of narcolepsy, a chronic disorder causing excessive daytime sleepiness and extreme fatigue, have been reported after patients had been receiving the Pandemrix vaccine.

Six cases of narcolepsy is consistent with annual averages, reports THL, but all of these patients were affected after being vaccinated, and there are nine additional cases that have not yet been confirmed.

The precautionary measure will take effect until the actual cause of the current health issue can be established. Preliminary results of the investigation will take several months to be known, says the THL.

“A number of different reasons may be behind the observed rise in the incidence of narcolepsy: A(H1N1) infection, vaccination, a compound effect of infection and vaccination, or some other factor entirely. Infections in general are known to cause narcolepsy,” said a THL press release.

Posted by: alance | August 27, 2010 6:12 AM | Report abuse

. Stein makes some excellent points here. First, flu deaths are hard
count because influenza is rarely listed as the cause of death, but is
often a factor in deaths attributed to other causes. We may not know
exact numbers, but all I can say is a death is a death and if we can
it through vaccination, we need to. William Schaffner, MD. President,
National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

Posted by: williamschaffner | August 30, 2010 11:41 AM | Report abuse

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