In the last few days, I have heard several news stories about the swine flu. In nearly every one of them, the seriousness of the flu generally is discussed, and this statistic given: that each year an average of 36,000 people die of the flu.

36,000 people. From where does this statistic come? And is it true?

From The Vaccine Book, by Robert W. Sears, M.D., F.A.A.P. (this book, due to its subject matter, tends to focus on children and vaccines, hence the references in the following passages to child statistics; but the larger point applies to the source and limitations of the usual statistics):

Is the Flu Serious?

Mostly no, but sometimes yes. Virtually all cases of the flu pass without consequence. However, there is an average of 100,000 hospitalizations each year because of complications from the flu. Most involve elderly people.

There is a misconception about how serious the flu is in infants and children. This is because the most common source of flu data comes from the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) database. This is what most doctors review when they investigate flu data for any given year so they’ll know how to educate their patients about the risks of the flu. The MMWR reports deaths from the flu and from pneumonia all in the same group. So most doctors (and regular people, too) can’t easily look up how many people died from just the flu in a given year. In addition, the MMWR doesn’t tell us how many infants and young children die compared with the number of elderly adults. All the MMWR does tell us is that over the past several years, about 36,000 people have died annually from the flu and pneumonia. This is the statistic most commonly referred to when people talk about the flu. Most informational materials that promote the flu vaccine cite this statistic from the MMWR, giving the false impression that 36,000 people actually die from the flu every year. In reality, this is the number of deaths from the flu and pneumonia combined. I was reading an Associated Press news release from May 1, 2006, about a new flu vaccine, and sure enough, there it was: “Each winter, flu kills 36,000 Americans, most of them elderly.” No wonder people panic over the flu. Other press releases even go so far as to say, “36,000 people die every year from the flu, most of them infants and the elderly.” Such statements give worried parents the false impression that thousands, if not tens of thousands, of infants are killed each year by the flu.

What is the actual number of flu fatalities every year? Relatively few. How do I know this? Because the National Center for Health Statistics, a lesser-known database that doctors don’t commonly read, does collect data on all causes of death in the United States. This center, along with the American Lung Association, published a paper in 2004 that detailed the number of deaths from the flu alone in various age groups over the past twenty-five years. They found that there had been fewer than twenty deaths reported each year in each of the following age groups:

  • infants under 1 year
  • kids ages 1 to 4 years
  • kids ages 5 to 14 years
  • young adults ages 15 to 24 years
  • adults ages 25 to 34 years

This adds up to only about 100 deaths reportedly caused by the actual flu virus, or complications thereof, each year in children and young adults combined. The same paper says the total number of deaths from the flu each year in the United States averages about 1500. Over 90 percent of those deaths are in people age sixty-five and older.”