80,000 People Died Of Flu in The US Last Winter, Making It The Worst Season On Record

Many flu-associated deaths are caused not by the virus itself, but by severe secondary respiratory infections, like pneumonia because the immune system is overwhelmed. Natee K Jindakum/Shutterstock

Aliyah Kovner 01 Oct 2018, 11:47

Around 80,000 people in the US died as a result of the influenza virus during the winter of 2017-2018, making it the deadliest seasonal flu in more than four decades, according to updated figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In addition to a high mortality, last season’s strains were worrying to public health officials because they induced severe infections and complications in people across the nation, not just select regions, from all age groups. The agency reports that the overall hospitalization rates during 2017-2018 were the highest ever recorded since annual surveillance began in 1976. And sadly, the number of flu-associated deaths in children was also the highest recorded since 2004, when this was first regularly monitored.

"One hundred and eighty kids – this really hit me hard as the father of three kids – died last year from the flu. And the majority of them were unvaccinated," US Surgeon General Dr Jerome Adams said at a news conference hosted by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases last week. "Flu vaccinations save lives."

In the past, seasonal flu strains have typically been dangerous to children, the elderly, pregnant women, and those with compromised immune systems – healthy adults often fare much better. On the other hand, pandemic influenzas – outbreaks of newly emerged strains that are different enough from existing ones that people will have very little natural immunity – are more likely to affect a broad swathe of the population and cause more deaths. And because it takes time to develop vaccines, no protective immunizations are available in the early phases of a pandemic.

Due to the significant differences between these two types of flu event, the CDC compares annual seasonal flu and pandemic flu burdens separately. Since pediatric flu death surveillance began, the overall record was set by the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, which claimed the lives of 358 children.

Though the illness-causing viruses that circulated last year – predominately strains of H3N2 (influenza A) – were particularly nasty, health officials note that the unprecedented hospitalization and mortality rates would have been lower if more people had been vaccinated.

According to The Washington Post, less than half of the US population was vaccinated, as has been the case for the past several years. Experts speculate that many people opt out of yearly flu vaccines for themselves or their children (vaccines are recommended for everyone six months and older) due to skepticism over their benefit, given the hit-or-miss nature of their design. However, despite their limitations, seasonal vaccines are still an essential tool for reducing the number of flu cases that require medical treatment.

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"The vaccine is not perfect," Dr William Schaffner, medical director for the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, said at the conference. "But give the vaccine credit for softening the blow."

Indeed, last year’s vaccine was found to reduce the likelihood of getting sick enough to need a doctor’s visit by 40 percent – a non-trivial degree of protection.

With the 2018-2019 flu season fast approaching, officials are urging the public to get vaccinated by the end of October. Because each person’s immunity lowers the chance of illness spreading in their community, Surgeon General Adams remarked that it is our "social responsibility to get vaccinated."

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