Healthy living

Swine flu less lethal than feared

Zone default image Lowest death rate of modern pandemics

The swine flu pandemic has been "considerably less lethal" than originally feared, England's Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson said.

By November 8 this year, 26 people have died out of every 100,000 infected with the swine flu virus, a study led by Sir Liam revealed.

"The first influenza pandemic of the 21st century is considerably less lethal than was feared in advance," the study said.

With a death rate of 0.026%, the UK has appears to have got off lightly compared with past flu pandemics.

The two most recent flu pandemics in 1957 and 1967 had death rates of around 0.2 %, and the notorious Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 had a rate of 2-3%, eventually killing around 50 million people worldwide.

The analysis of swine flu deaths also found that around two thirds of deaths could have been prevented by vaccination, as those who died were in the high risk groups.

However, a sizeable minority (38%) of deaths occurred in people outside the high risk groups.

"Given that a substantial minority of deaths occur in previously healthy people, there is a case for extending the vaccination programme and for continuing to make anti-viral treatment widely available," Sir Liam stated.

Although 5 to 14 year olds have consistently been most at risk of being infected, the study shows they had one of the lowest rates, with around 11 deaths per 100,000 people.

In contrast to this, death rates were found to be highest in the over 65 age group, at 980 per 100,000, despite being less likely to be infected.

The results, reported online in the British Medical Journal, came as the number of new cases of swine flu in the UK continues to fall.

Last week, 11,000 people were infected in England, compared with 22,000 the week before.

Infection rates are down in most age groups except for those under the age of one. To date, 283 deaths in the UK have been linked to the swine flu virus.

This article was published on Fri 11 December 2009

Image © CDC C. S. Goldsmith and A. Balish

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