How Many Flu Deaths Are Seen Each Year

Even without pandemics, influenza is a major deadly disease for adults and kids.

Oranges were offered during a 1940s flu epidemic
Fortunately, we have more than Flu Ration Oranges to help protect us during flu epidemics. Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images

Even in a non-pandemic year, a lot of people die from the flu. Many die because of secondary complications, such as pneumonia or complications of chronic medical problems, but children also die from influenza each year. Looking at the total numbers and specifically at how many children die of the flu can be a wake-up call for how serious influenza is and the need to take precautions for your family.

Many experts use an estimate of 36,000 yearly flu deaths each year, which was the average number of flu deaths seen annually during the 1990s. An estimate that uses a much longer time frame, including more recent ​flu seasons, from 1976 to 2007, has found an average of 23,607 deaths.

There is a lot of variability from year to year, with a low of 3,349 deaths during the 1986-87 flu season to a high of 48,614 in 2003-04, which was considered a severe flu season.

Deaths in Flu Pandemics

Although a lot of people die in a typical flu season, the death rate from the flu can go up greatly during a flu pandemic or worldwide outbreak of the flu.

The increased deaths aren't necessarily because the strain of flu virus is stronger, but rather because so many more people get sick during a pandemic, such as:

  • 1889 Russian Flu Pandemic: About 1 million flu deaths
  • 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic: Over 40 to 50 million flu deaths, including about 675,000 in the United States. The flu infected over half of the world's population by the end of the pandemic.
  • 1957 Asian Flu Pandemic: Over 1 million flu deaths, including about 69,800 in the United States
  • 1968 Hong Kong Flu Pandemic: About 1 to 3 million flu deaths
  • 2009 H1N1 Flu Pandemic: Between 8,870 and 18,300 deaths in the United States and up to 203,000 deaths worldwide

The 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic was the first pandemic for which a large supply of flu vaccine was available, although it came as cases were already peaking in the United States.

A limited supply of flu vaccine was also available during the 1968 pandemic, but by the time it was available, cases had already peaked.

Pediatric Flu Deaths

As much as people like to think the flu is a mild disease, you can't get away from the fact that a lot of kids die from the flu each year.

Unlike flu deaths in adults, which are just estimates, we actually know exactly how many kids die from the flu each year as it has been a nationally notifiable condition since 2004:

  • 2003-04 flu season: 152 pediatric flu deaths
  • 2004-05 flu season: 39 pediatric flu deaths
  • 2005-06 flu season: 41 pediatric flu deaths
  • 2006-07 flu season: 68 pediatric flu deaths
  • 2007-08 flu season: 88 pediatric flu deaths
  • 2008-09 flu season: 133 pediatric flu deaths
  • 2009-10 flu season: 282 pediatric flu deaths
    (swine flu pandemic)
  • 2010-11 flu season: 123 pediatric flu deaths
  • 2011-12 flu season: 37 pediatric flu deaths
  • 2012-13 flu season: 171 pediatric flu deaths
  • 2013-14 flu season: 111 pediatric flu deaths
  • 2014-15 flu season: 148 pediatric flu deaths
  • 2015-16 flu season: 85 pediatric flu deaths
  • 2016-17 flu season: 77 pediatric flu deaths through April 15.

And these aren't all kids with risk factors, like having asthma, diabetes, or other chronic medical condition.

Reports have shown that about half of the children who die from the flu each year have no known high-risk factors for flu complications.

How to Prevent Flu Deaths

Of course, the best way to prevent flu deaths is to avoid getting sick with the flu in the first place. The CDC recommends three actions to take to prevent getting influenza and to lessen your risk of serious complications and spreading the flu if you get it.

  1. Get the annual flu vaccine. The most simple, best protection from the flu is a yearly flu vaccine, that is likely your best way to prevent flu deaths. Typically, 80 to 90 percent of the children who die from the flu were not fully vaccinated. Everyone 6 months of age and older should get a flu vaccine by the end of October, if possible, according to the CDC. Babies younger than 6 months are too young to be vaccinated but are at high risk. It is important that their family and caregivers get vaccinated, so they don't infect babies with the flu.
  1. Good health habits can also help stop the spread of flu germs. These include staying away from people who are sick. When you are sick, stay home, so you aren't spreading these dangerous germs. Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze. Wash your hands often as that will remove the germs. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. Clean and disinfect surfaces that people frequently touch. Keep your general health in good order by eating nutritious food, staying well-hydrated, getting enough sleep, and being physically active.
  2. If you get the flu, your doctor may prescribe antiviral drugs, These can make the illness milder and last fewer days. This can help prevent serious complications and death from the flu. If you or your child have any symptoms of the flu, see your doctor immediately.

Sources:

CDC. Estimates of Deaths Associated with Seasonal Influenza—United States, 1976--2007. MMWR. August 27, 2010 / 59(33);1057-1062.

CDC Says "Take 3" Actions to Fight the Flu. CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/preventing.htm.

History of Flu Pandemics. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. http://www.flu.gov/individualfamily/about/pandemic/history.html.

Influenza (Flu) Past Weekly Surveillance Reports. CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/weekly/pastreports.htm.

Simonsen, Lone. Global Mortality Estimates for the 2009 Influenza Pandemic from the GLaMOR Project: A Modeling Study. PLOS Medicine.Published: Nov 26, 2013.

Continue Reading