Deaths in Flu Pandemics
Although a lot of people die in a typical flu season, the death rate from the flu can go up greatly during a flu pandemic or worldwide outbreak of the flu.
The increased deaths aren't necessarily because the strain of flu virus is stronger, but rather because so many more people get sick during a pandemic, such as:
- 1889 Russian Flu Pandemic - about 1 million flu deaths
- 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic - over 40 to 50 million flu deaths, including about 675,000 in the United States. The flu infected over half of the world's population by the end of the pandemic.
- 1957 Asian Flu Pandemic - over 1 million flu deaths, including about 69,800 in the United States
- 1968 Hong Kong Flu Pandemic - about 1 to 3 million flu deaths
- 2009 H1N1 Flu Pandemic - between 8,870 and 18,300 deaths in the United States
The 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic was the first pandemic for which a large supply of flu vaccine was available, although it came as cases were already peaking in the United States. A limited supply of flu vaccine was also available during the 1968 pandemic, but again, by the time it was available, cases had already peaked.
Deaths from Flu
Even in a non-pandemic year, a lot of people die from the flu, usually because of secondary complications, such as pneumonia or complications of chronic medical problems.
Most people are aware of the 36,000 yearly flu deaths estimate that many experts use. This was an average number of flu deaths that experts found during the 1990s.
An estimate that uses a much longer time frame, including more recent flu seasons, from 1976 to 2007, has found an average of 23,607 deaths.
There is a lot of variability from year to year, though, with a low of 3,349 deaths during the 1986-87 flu season to a high of 48,614 in 2003-04, which was considered a severe flu season.
Pediatric Flu Deaths
As much as people like to think the flu is a mild disease, you can't get away from the fact that a lot of kids die from the flu each year.
Unlike flu deaths in adults, which are just estimates, we actually know exactly how many kids die from the flu each year as it has been a nationally notifiable condition since 2004:
- 2003-04 flu season - 152 pediatric flu deaths
- 2004-05 flu season - 39 pediatric flu deaths
- 2005-06 flu season - 41 pediatric flu deaths
- 2006-07 flu season - 68 pediatric flu deaths
- 2007-08 flu season - 88 pediatric flu deaths
- 2008-09 flu season - 133 pediatric flu deaths
- 2009-10 flu season - 282 pediatric flu deaths
- 2010-11 flu season - 123 pediatric flu deaths
- 2011-12 flu season - 34 pediatric flu deaths
- 2012-13 flu season - 138 pediatric flu deaths so far
And these aren't all kids with risk factors, like having asthma, diabetes, or other chronic medical condition. Reports have shown that about half of the children who die from the flu each year have no known high-risk factors for flu complications.
Preventing Flu Deaths
Of course, the best way to prevent flu deaths is to avoid getting sick with the flu in the first place.
You can try to avoid the flu by staying away from people who are sick and washing your hands frequently, but since the most simple, best protection from the flu is a yearly flu vaccine, that is likely your best way to prevent flu deaths.
During the 2010-11 flu season, 72% of children who died from the flu were not vaccinated.
CDC. FluView. 2012-2013 Influenza Season Week 18 ending May 4, 2013
CDC. Estimates of Deaths Associated with Seasonal Influenza --- United States, 1976--2007. MMWR. August 27, 2010 / 59(33);1057-1062.
CDC. Influenza-Associated Pediatric Deaths --- United States, September 2010--August 2011. MMWR. September 16, 2011 / 60(36);1233-1238.
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. History of Flu Pandemics. http://www.flu.gov/individualfamily/about/pandemic/history.html Accessed Dec 2011.