A Flu Pandemic Could Kill 62 Million

A global flu disaster like the 1918 flu pandemic could kill 62 million people worldwide, mainly in developing countries with scarce health resources, experts estimate.

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on December 21, 2006
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Dec. 21, 2006 -- A global fludisaster like the 1918 flu pandemic could kill 62 million people worldwide, mainly in developing countries with scarce health resources, experts estimate.

A pandemic is a global disease outbreak. Currently, no flu pandemic is under way. Though many scientists expect future flu pandemics, they can't accurately predict when flu pandemics will strike.

The 1918 flu pandemic caused at least 675,000 U.S. deaths and up to 50 million deaths worldwide, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' pandemic flu web site.

The 1918 flu pandemic killed more people in poor countries than in rich countries, note Christopher Murray, DPhil, and colleagues.

Murray directs the Harvard Initiative for Global Health. He and his colleagues calculated the flu pandemic predictions published in The Lancet.

If a flu pandemic equaling the 1918 pandemic occurred, global deaths could range from 51 million to 81 million, with 62 million as the average.

Ninety-six percent of those deaths would likely happen in poor countries, Murray's team predicts.

The researchers also expect younger people to be particularly hard hit by a flu pandemic.

"Most deaths would occur in 15-29-year-old individuals, followed by those age 0-14 years and 30-44-year-olds," the researchers write.

Preparing for Flu Pandemics

Though no one knows when flu pandemics will happen, preparing for the possibility is "clearly prudent," the researchers write.

Poorer countries may need help in finding practical, affordable strategies to prepare for flu pandemics, Murray's team notes.

The prospect of a flu pandemic hitting the poorest countries hardest is "depressingly familiar," writes editorialist Neil Ferguson, FMedSci.

Ferguson is a professor in the department of infectious disease epidemiology at Imperial College London.

"History tells us that poor populations always endure a disproportionate burden of disease and death from infectious diseases," he writes.

Like Murray and colleagues, Ferguson calls for developed countries to commit to global flu pandemic preparedness.

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Sources

SOURCES: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' PandemicFlu.gov: "General Information." U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' PandemicFlu.gov: "What Is an Influenza Pandemic?" News release, Harvard School of Public Health. News release, The Lancet.

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