After the H1N1 flu pandemic of 2009-10, it was estimated that 18,500 died from the virus termed "swine flu." New data shows the death toll was probably 15 times higher: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now estimate there were 284,500 fatalities.
The study, published in The Lancet Infectious Disease, also estimates that 59 percent of the deaths occurred in southeast Asia and Africa. And more of the deaths occured among the young and healthy than a typical flu strain: 80 percent of the victims were under 65, and a third were healthy.
The researchers arrived at their estimate by developing a new model that used influenza-specific data from 12 countries of varying economic status. Understanding that risk of death from flu is higher in some countries than others, they used World Health Organization data adjust for these differences.
“The number of deaths is not the only thing to look at in assessing the impact, but the huge loss of human potential,” lead author Dr. Fatimah S. Dawood told the Wall Street Journal. Because H1N1 killed so many young people, “more than three times the number of years [of life] were lost than are lost in a seasonal flu epidemic.”
Still, the pandemic killed fewer people than other major outbreaks throughout history. And the number estimated in the new report likely won't be the final word: more studies could give better estimates from low-income areas where data hasn't been readily availabl, wrote Dr. Cecile Viboud of the National Institutes of Health and Professor Lone Simonsen of George Washington University in an accompanying article.
"The study underscores the significant human toll of an influenza pandemic, Dawood said in a press release. "We hope that this work can be used not only to improve influenza disease burden modelling globally, but to improve the public health response during future pandemics in parts of the world that suffer more deaths, and to increase the public's awareness of the importance of influenza prevention."
Photo Credit: Corbis