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Swine flu 'less lethal than was feared'

Fergus Walsh | 15:01 UK time, Thursday, 10 December 2009

New research has estimated that there have been 26 deaths out of every 100,000 cases of swine flu in England.

Swine flu information leafletThe authors say this makes the first pandemic of the 21st Century "considerably less lethal than was feared in advance". No surprises there, but it is the first time we've had a figure for death rates in this country.

The study, published online in the British Medical Journal
was carried out by a research team at the Department of Health.

It concludes that swine flu has a fatality rate of 0.026% or put another away, about one death in every 3,800 people infected.

That would make it 10 times less lethal than flu pandemics in the 50s and 60s and 100 times less dangerous than the pandemic of 1918-19. So-called Spanish flu is thought to have killed at least 50 million people, more than died in the World War I.

It's worth pointing out that all estimates of deaths from flu pandemics are subject to very wide variation. Increases in fatality are usually worked out more than a year later by analysing trends in death rates and calculating the likely proportion due to flu.

This is the first time that individual deaths from a pandemic flu virus have been counted. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate for deaths in the United States is similar at 0.018%.

The Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson said improvements in nutrition, housing and health care might explain some of the apparent decrease in fatality from one pandemic to the next.

But even the comparatively low death rate of 0.026% may itself be a huge overestimate. That's because huge numbers of those infected have probably had swine flu without knowing it.

Recently the Health Protection Agency estimated that up to one in five schoolchildren have had the virus, half of them without showing symptoms.

Two thirds of those who died from swine flu would have been eligible for vaccination and the authors say this demonstrates the importance of immunising those at high risk of complications.

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