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Press Release

Embargoed until 4 p.m. EDT,
Tuesday, January 7, 2003

Contact: CDC Media Relations
(404) 639-3286

CDC Finds Annual Flu Deaths Higher Than Previously Estimated

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) today released data indicating that the estimated number of people who die from influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) per year in the United States is substantially higher than previous estimates. The data are published in the January 8 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

Using new and improved statistical models, CDC scientists estimate that an average of 36,000 people (up from 20,000 in previous estimates) die from influenza-related complications each year in the United States. In addition, about 11,000 people die per year from respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a virus that causes upper and lower respiratory tract infections primarily in young children and older adults. The study demonstrates that most deaths caused by RSV occur in the elderly.

“We’ve known for sometime that influenza and RSV have a profound impact on public health,” said CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding. “However, these data indicate that the magnitude of the problem is larger than we once thought.”

CDC researchers believe that the increase can be explained in part by the aging of the U.S population. Over the past several decades, the number of persons aged 85 or older has doubled. Also, the most virulent of influenza viruses in recent years, influenza A (H3N2), has been the most common strain circulating during the last decade.

Vaccinating individuals who are at greatest risk of serious complications from influenza will continue to be the primary strategy for preventing influenza associated deaths. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) recently announced a new policy that allows nursing homes, hospitals and home health agencies that serve Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries to remind patients when it is time for an annual vaccination and ask if they want to receive a shot.

“More high risk people than ever before are getting their flu shots and that is certainly good news,” Dr. Gerberding said. “However, it is crucial that we continue to get the message out regarding the importance of high risk people getting their flu shots each and every year.”

In addition, the study points out that research is needed to develop better influenza vaccines that are more protective in the elderly and RSV vaccines that are effective in both young children and elderly persons.

Influenza season usually peaks in the United States sometime between December and March. So far this year only a few states have reported widespread activity. “It is still quite early in our influenza season and we expect activity to pick up in the coming weeks,” said CDC Epidemiologist Dr. Keiji Fukuda. “It is definitely not too late to get your flu shot if you have not received one.”

The CDC recommends influenza vaccination for those at high risk for complications from the flu, including individuals aged 65 and older and others with chronic medical conditions such as heart and lung disease and diabetes, as well as health care workers. All other groups, including household members of high-risk persons, healthy people ages 50-64, and others who wish to decrease their risk of getting the flu should begin receiving vaccinations in November. CDC also encourages children aged 6 months to 23 months to receive influenza vaccinations.

For more information on influenza please go to

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This page last updated January 7, 2003

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