Estimates Slashed on Annual Flu Deaths

For years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that the flu kills approximately 36,000 people annually. But now federal health officials have demonstrated that the number is misleading, The Washington Post reports, and that over the past three decades, the number of flu-related deaths has ranged from an annual low of about 3,300 to a high of about 49,000.

Based on the three decades tracked, the new average would work out to 23,607 deaths each year. Still, according to CDC officials, there really is no average flu season.

“There are at least four factors that affect mortality in any given year: the specific influenza strain, the length of the season, how many people get sick and who gets sick — whether it’s hitting younger or older people differentially,” Dr. David Shay, a medical officer with the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said at a news conference.

The new numbers are based on deaths from the 1976-77 flu season through the 2006-2007 season. The earlier estimate was based on deaths from the 1990s, when influenza A, a strain of the flu that resulted in three times as many deaths as other strains, was dominant.

Critics have long suggested that the CDC inflated the number of flu deaths to encourage people to get the flu shot, and that opinion was particularly prevalent in the wake of H1N1, or swine flu, outbreaks, which a presidential advisory panel had estimated could kill 30,000 to 90,000 people. The Post reports:

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.

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