The facts on flu

As of 29 April, the WHO ‘swine influen­za’ update site shows a total of sev­en deaths from the Mex­i­can out­break, all in Mex­i­co. It’s tech­ni­cal­ly a ‘pan­dem­ic’ because con­firmed cas­es (no deaths) have now been report­ed in six coun­tries oth­er than Mex­i­co. All except the USA (46) are in the sin­gle-dig­its.

On aver­age flu kills 41,000 peo­ple in the USA every year… and in Aus­tralia? Accord­ing to Australia’s Health 2008, there were 3034 deaths from ‘pneu­mo­nia and influen­za’ in 2005—about 2.3% of all deaths—making the two res­pi­ra­to­ry dis­eases the tenth lead­ing cause of death for women and the twelfth for men. The mor­tal­i­ty rates seem to be sim­i­lar in recent years although there was a strong up-turn in influen­za cas­es noti­fied by Aus­tralian doc­tors in 2007 (more than 10,000 cas­es for the first time).

Unfor­tu­nate­ly the mor­tal­i­ty data pub­licly avail­able does not dis­tin­guish between pneu­mo­nia and influen­za: two dis­eases with very dif­fer­ent eti­ol­o­gy. Pneumonia—the ‘old man’s friend’—preys endem­i­cal­ly on the weak­ened immune sys­tems of the sick and elder­ly. It can be caused by infec­tions from bac­te­ria or par­a­sites as well as by virus­es and is fre­quent­ly the most seri­ous com­pli­ca­tion of influen­za.

Accord­ing to Australia’s Health Avian influen­za (bird flu) cur­rent­ly remains rare world­wide. In 2007, there were 77 human cas­es world­wide, two-thirds of whom died. This takes the total num­ber of suf­fer­ers between the end of 2003 to the end of 2007 to 340, of whom 61% died. There have been no human cas­es in Aus­tralia.

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