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.
Flickr, by Sir Sabbhat
Relax, no need to pandemic
The World Health Organization has declared the H1N1 “swine flu” flu pandemic (the one you forgot was happening) as officially over.
So what did we learn from this episode? Did we just luck out, as WHO officials say?
Or was it alarmist? Some critics even said the WHO’s refusal to stand down from their pandemic alert level — once it appeared to be milder than expected — was prompted by the desire to appease the drug makers who had responded to the alert by producing massive amounts of drugs and vaccines.
That seems a bit too conspiratorial. But it’s clear the world community needs to come up with a better way to respond to the unpredictable threat of pandemic flu — beginning with a clear definition of what is, and is not, a pandemic.
Flickr photo by Y
Remember the Swine Flu Pandemic of 2009?
The one that didn’t quite happen?
Well, the World Health Organization has been thinking about declaring it’s over. The new virus, H1N1, has been much milder than regular flu — so far showing only about one-third the mortality rate of the routine seasonal bug. But the WHO isn’t quite ready yet to officially declare that the pandemic has passed.
So don’t let’s go and burn the rest of the vaccines just yet.
Once again, critics are claiming public health experts last year hyped the potential threat of a uniquely piggish version of the influenza virus – the H1N1 virus, or so-called swine flu. This time, however, some of the critics add that the hype was done to benefit the drug industry.
The World Health Organization and other leading health authorities strongly reject the criticism, saying they acted prudently given the risk of a deadly pandemic such as the world experienced in 1918.
The truth is likely somewhere in between. Continue reading