Human flu pandemic death rate predictions
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Human flu pandemic death rate predictions.

Current estimates that a flu pandemic could infect 20% of the world's population and cause 7.5 million deaths are "among the more optimistic predictions of how the next pandemic might unfold".  Osterhaus et al. Nature May 2005

"The next flu pandemic could kill as many as 150 million people." Dr. David Nabarro.  WHO spokesman Sept 2005.

"As many as 142 million people around the world could die if bird flu turns into a "worst case" influenza pandemic and global economic losses could run to $4.4 trillion - the equivalent of wiping out the entire Japanese economy for a year".   Report entitled Global Macroeconomic Consequences of Pandemic Influenza, from the Lowy Institute in Australia.  Feb 2006.

Well maybe, but don't forget that all these doomsayers have a vested interest in playing up the risks.  They all work, in one way or another, on flu pandemics and want want governments to bung them more money.  Let's take a look.

Seasonal influenza, in each hemisphere's winter, affects between 5 and 20 percent of the population each year of whom less than one percent of, mostly elderly, victims die.    That is between 250,000 and 500,000 deaths.  It's a lot, but we all have to die of something, which is why most of us keep fairly calm in the face of flu-related deaths.  

However, every 20 or 30 years or so a more virulent strain appears, which affects a higher proportion of the population, and has a higher mortality.  There were three such strains in the 20th century.  The "Spanish" flu of 1918 killed 40 million people, the 1952 pandemic killed 2 million, and the 1968 pandemic killed 1 million.  

Perhaps the next one will be worse, but perhaps not.   Since those three pandemics, vaccines have become available.  They are tricky to produce because they need to be prepared fresh for each new strain that arises.  But nevertheless a well established global system of flu vaccine development produces about 250 million doses just in time for each hemisphere's epidemics.  

There is also a new treatment oseltamivir, (Tamiflu).  It's not a cure but it shortens the disease by a day or so and, in conjunction with all the other developments in medicine since 1918, is likely to reduce mortality.  Roche, the manufacturer produces 400 million courses per year and has licensed companies in India and China to produce their own.  It is being stockpiled all over the world.  

So we'll see.  The next pandemic is more or less due.  There will be a mighty drama when it comes.  Every death in you town will be in the paper, and death rates like the ones above will be bandied about.  

But our guess is that when the shouting dies down, and the epidemiologists count the excess deaths for the year, the total will be nearer the 1 million of 1968.  Perhaps 2-4 times those that happen every year without us noticing.  

iGreens will let you know how it turned out.  Don't hold your breath.  

March 2006


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Last modified: March 25, 2006