On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lowered its official estimate of the number of people who die from the flu during a typical flu season. The estimate, once frequently quoted as 36,000, has been lowered to 23,600.
The previously-quoted 36,000 figure relates to a specific period from 1990-1999, during which time the more severe H3N2 strain of influenza was more common; however, Tom Skinner, a spokesman for CDC, says that an overall estimate such as this doesn't paint an accurate picture of the potential deadly consequences of influenza, because few flu seasons can truly be classified as "average." In fact, over the past 30 years, the actual figure has fluctuated from 3,300 to 49,000 deaths per year -- quite a wide range.
Skinner advises quoting a range with the explanation that the number of deaths we can expect in a given year strongly depends on the strains that are circulating.
Interestingly, the H3N2 strain is far more dangerous than the highly publicized H1N1 virus, which garnered significant media attention for influenza-related deaths despite showing lower mortality rates overall -- in fact, deaths from the H3N2 strain were 2.7 times higher than H1N1 or B strains. Dr. David Shay, a medical officer for CDC's Influenza Division, noted that 90% of all influenza-related deaths occur in persons 65 years and older.
Seniors tend to have weaker immune systems and are more likely to develop pneumonia as a complication from the flu. Also, many seniors reside in communal housing, such as assisted living facilities and nursing homes, where the spread of contagious illness is more likely. Many facilities routinely offer vaccinations to all residents at the beginning of the flu season in order to prevent outbreaks and ask that family and friends who are exhibiting flu-like symptoms refrain from visiting until they are well.
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