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What are your chances of dying of flu?

Fergus Walsh | 19:25 UK time, Thursday, 13 January 2011

What are your chances of dying of flu this winter? It's a pertinent question given the apparent doubling of the confirmed deaths since October. Figures from the Health Protection Agency reveal that, across the UK, flu-related deaths rose from 50 to 112.

So are the chances of dying one in 10,000 or 1 in 100,000? Neither is remotely close.

Here's why: We've been told the ages of 101 of those who died.

Six were 0-4 years old; nine were 5-14; 34 were aged 15-44; 36 were 45-64 and 16 were 65 and over.

Now if we look at the number of deaths per head of population, the highest is among those in middle age. One in 440,000 people aged 45-64 have died. Among the under-fives it is one in 630,000 - the same rate as those 65 and over.

I hope that reassures people who have been alarmed by swine flu stories in the media.

So does this mean we do not need to be concerned about flu? No it does not. If you have a chronic respiratory problem and are pregnant, then your risks from - especially swine flu - will be a lot higher than those listed above. That is why anyone in an at-risk group should be immunised.

In any case, statistics are a dangerous thing, so I would urge caution. The real death rate will be higher because it doesn't include age data on 11 people AND because the HPA admit that their figures will underestimate the number of deaths. This is because some people who die of other causes will probably have had flu and this will have played a part in their deaths but will not have been tested for.

Nonetheless if you are an otherwise healthy person then your chances of dying from flu are very small indeed. There have been deaths among those without previous conditions, such as the case of Lana Ameen. But these are rare.

I thought it worth giving you that context because in the wake of the Lana Ameen case, there will be a lot of concerned parents with healthy children desperate to get their children immunised. Her parents appealed yesterday for all healthy children to be allowed a flu jab but the Department of Health said that it was best to focus on those most vulnerable to the virus.

So when will the worst be over?

Cases of influenza-like illness have risen sharply in Northern Ireland, and slightly in England and Wales. But there are other indicators which suggest that outbreak will peak soon.

The number of people in critical care in England has fallen to 661 from 783 last week. The number of flu-related calls to NHS Direct has also fallen.

The Department of Health has distributed 200,000 doses of the pandemic H1N1 vaccine to GPs in England and Wales and have said that no-one who is eligible for the jab should be refused it.

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