How Many Americans Die From Flu Every Year?

By Victoria Simpson on July 11 2020 in Answer

An elderly woman down with severe flu. Image credit: fizkes/Shutterstock.com
An elderly woman down with severe flu. Image credit: fizkes/Shutterstock.com
  • In 2018-2019 between 26,000 and 53,000 people died from the flu in the US alone. 
  • Many people skip their flu shot thinking it doesn't matter, but an estimated 80% of children who die from the flu did not get their flu vaccine.
  • In adults, getting an annual flu shot has been shown to decrease your chances of falling seriously sick with the flu by 40% to 60%.

Each year, the flu season comes along in the fall, and peaks somewhere in January and February in the US. Thankfully, cases eventually die down. Sometimes the flu season lasts all the way through until May however, at which point we all rest for a couple of days before worrying about sneezing our way through allergy season next. 

Influenza is uncomfortable and contagious. Did you know it can also be deadly? In 2018-2019 between 26,000 and 53,000 people died from the flu in the US alone. 

People die from the flu in various ways. Some people develop severe breathing problems, and cannot get enough oxygen to their organs, in the same way that people die from COVID-19. When this happens, their body shuts down. This is usually caused when bacterial pneumonia develops. The flu causes so much inflammation in your lungs that it damages your lung tissues. Bacteria can then get in and cause trouble.  

Other people can experience severe dehydration with the flu, such as babies, which can be deadly. Furthermore, if your immune system overreacts to the flu, you could die. This is called sepsis. Sepsis causes those cytokine storms you might have heard of in relation to the coronavirus. When your body overreacts to the flu, it can develop so much inflammation that multiple organ systems shut down, which can kill you. 

The scary thing about the flu is that you cannot really tell who will react very badly to it. This illness turns deadly more often for older adults over 65, and children under the age of five, however.  

History Of The Flu

The flu has been around for a while. Flu pandemics have actually been documented for hundreds of years, and experts say there are an average of 40 years of rest between each major episode, so it is best to be prepared. Strangely enough, it is not only humans who get the flu. Warm-blooded animals like birds, pigs, and horses can also catch these significant sniffles, aches and pains. 

Walter Reed Hospital flu ward during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-19, in Washington DC. Image credit: Shutterstock.com

The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919 has gotten a lot of attention in the media. This is because it was a pretty big deal. This pandemic killed 675,000 people in the US and 50 million people worldwide in just about one year. (In contrast, at the time of this writing the coronavirus has killed between 500,000 and 600,000 worldwide after about 7 months of known pandemic). 

The 1918 pandemic was the most lethal influenza pandemic the world has ever seen. In most places, about 25% to 40% of people caught it. Unlike the new coronavirus that kills more elderly people than youth however, almost 100% of those who died from the Spanish flu were under the age of 65. More than half of the deaths during this pandemic were of people between 20 and 40 years old. 

Was the Spanish Flu pandemic the only of its kind? This was the most severe one, but other flu pandemics have happened in its wake. 

The H2N2 virus created a flu pandemic originating in Asia in 1957-58, and in 1968 the H3N2 pandemic started in birds in the US. Finally in 2009, the H1N1 pandemic also began in the US before spreading around the globe. 

Part of the reason why the Spanish Flu pandemic was so bad was that  people did not yet know how viruses could spread at that time. This coupled with the fact that antibiotics did not yet exist and neither did flu vaccines. This meant that doctors had few tools in their kit to treat severe cases of the flu, and pretty much had to sit back and hope for the best. This resulted in  many deaths.

Today, a serious flu pandemic could occur but at least we have some medicines up our sleeves to treat bacterial pneumonia, and the flu itself, which would save more lives. 

Flu Types

There are many types of flu viruses. These viruses were not isolated until the 1930s, and scientists are continually learning more about them, as the flu  evolves with time. 

The type of virus that causes flu pandemics is always influenza A. Aquatic birds are natural reservoirs for all known subtypes of influenza A viruses. Influenza also comes in types B, C, and D. People with influenza C usually have mild infections. Influenza D is something that only seems to attack cows at the moment, and not people. 

Are there further subtypes? Yes. Influenza A and B can both be broken down into subtypes, and then into “clades” or groups, and “sub-clades” or sub-groups. The subtypes of influenza A include A(H1N1 and A(H3N2). For type B these are B(Victoria) and B(Yamagata). 

Swine flus are not another type of flu. They are any type of influenza that can be endemic in pigs. These types can also sometimes infect humans but rarely do. 

Treatments

There is not one cure-all potion to treat influenza, but there are medicines you can take to decrease your chances of dying from the flu. The annual flu shot is something that offers you protection. Unlike other vaccines, the flu vaccine is not going to stop you from getting the flu altogether. You can still fall sick. What the flu vaccine does though, is it greatly increases your odds of surviving a strong bout of the flu. Statistics show that 80% of children who died from the flu in 2018 did not get their flu shot.

Image credit: SK Design/Shutterstock.com

In the overall population, when you get your flu shot, you reduce your risk of falling sick with the flu by 40% and 60%. 

Why is the flu shot not more effective? Scientists have to develop a new flu shot every year. In order to do so, they have to engage in some guess work to create it. Vaccinologists in North America look to South America and places like Australia before the flu season hits in North America to see what strains of the flu are making people sick in those places in any particular season. (The flu tends to start spreading in southern locations first before traveling north). They then develop a flu vaccine based on what types of flu they think will cause a problem in the North in the coming flu season.

Sometimes scientists get it right, and sometimes not so much. You can always gain an advantage during the flu season by having your flu shot, however. When you vaccinate yourself, you can also protect others around you who may be more vulnerable to the flu’s grip, and in doing so, you help your community stay healthy. 

Get your flu shot, wash your hands, and stay home if you are sick.  Avoid those who already are sick. These are your best defences against the flu. 

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