We often follow this page and use statistics derived from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sometimes it makes a reader’s heart race — other times it makes your brain twinge. But it always has a certain allure. And we like the numbers we get. But sometimes we confuse the facts with the fiction.
The truth is, influenza is far more deadly than the news tells us, and death numbers reported by the CDC are misleading.
There are two main culprits: for one, there are murky numbers for how many Americans contract the flu. (In 2015, for example, almost 7,000 people died of the flu in California alone.) Two, the CDC doesn’t report data for deaths caused by “presumptive bacterial pneumonia,” which is caused by the same coronavirus (norovirus) that killed 44 New York City residents last year.
So, in tallying flu deaths, we rely on a few sources, both of which have slightly different figures than the CDC does. In California, for example, the local health department reported it as 7,880, not the CDC’s estimated total of 6,832, according to The New York Times. In each case, the CDC calls the county the local agency reports it to cover up inconsistencies in the local data.
Some of these discrepancies are more mundane than others. When no flu deaths were reported in a county last year, the state health department calculated what it believed a flu death would be, while the local health department tallied the rate of influenza-like illnesses. If an illness was anorexic for weeks, but suddenly a man slipped into a coma for more than two weeks, what would be the official figure for flu deaths reported from the lab? Some states have interpreted the number of deaths at the hospital as well. The CDC calculates it at 71,000, while the state department of health records it at 115,000, though that’s not comparable.
What is, however, true is that there are troubling trends in the influenza statistics. According to the CDC, the average number of people who died each year between 2004 and 2014 was nearly 300. In 2014, that number jumped to 5,114. (Last year, because of stricter laws on reporting flu deaths, the CDC only recorded 4,046 deaths.) This is troubling.
It should be no surprise, then, that the most lethal strain of the virus — the one that has been most associated with causing deaths — has been a very specific, and notoriously dangerous one. The CDC has reported every flu strain since 2003, when it first started tracking flu-related deaths and illness. In that time, it has identified the type of virus that caused most of the deaths as the A(H3N2) virus. This strain is particularly dangerous, especially for older people and people with underlying medical conditions. The latest figures show that more than 70 percent of the people who died of influenza last year were 65 or older. Of those, 45 percent had underlying medical conditions such as heart disease, asthma or diabetes.
Since the first manifestation of the illness, a year ago, we have been subjected to one of the worst flu seasons in years. From mid-November to early February, there have been approximately 64,000 flu-related hospitalizations — the highest monthly tally in the entire last 10 years. This season has been particularly severe, with more deaths and hospitalizations and far more hospitalizations than any previous year.
But it’s worth emphasizing the fact that the flu is not exclusive to just one strain. It’s an illness that can afflict people from age 6 months to over 65. There is no one simple way to prevent the virus, but there are a few preventive measures you can take. Talk to your doctor about your vaccination. If you have a predisposition, such as a weakened immune system, or are pregnant, your physician might recommend a vaccination. Make sure to wash your hands after using the restroom, and keep home sick people who are contagious. Don’t spread the flu to others in your household.
Should you get sick, get a prescription for a medicine called Tamiflu. Staying at home and avoiding contact with others will keep your symptoms from being transmitted. Antiviral drugs can improve your symptoms and prevent others from becoming infected.