Flu Death Toll Overstated, Varies Widely: CDC

A Sneezer
Sneeze

CDC

A Sneezer

Seasonal flu kills a lot of people and the media (including me) typically report that influenza causes about 30,000 deaths every year.

It appears that this number is almost always wrong. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — in its weekly death-and-destruction summary otherwise known as the MMWR — reports that U.S. mortality from regular flu (not counting swine flu) can range from 3,000 to 50,000 deaths per year.

The annual average is more like 23,000 deaths, public health experts say, but even saying this is pretty misleading given how variable is the seasonal death toll from influenza.

“There is no average flu season,” said Dr. David Shay, lead author of the report for the CDC. Shay and his team took a hard look at the records of flu from 1976 to 2007 and discovered mortality rates ranged all over the map, largely depending upon the severity of the viral strain in circulation that year.

Concern over last year’s H1N1 pandemic, or so-called swine flu, was prompted by the fact that this was a new viral strain that could have posed a much bigger threat due to lack of immunity in the population. It turned out not to be the case, proving mostly that flu is not only wildly varying but also wildly unpredictable.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.