Swine Flu Far Less Severe In Latest Calculations

By Steve Sternberg, USA TODAY

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A team of researchers from the USA and Britain on Monday dramatically scaled back estimates of the severity of the swine flu epidemic.

The analysis suggests that the death rate from the current wave of H1N1 flu cases probably will fall in a range that extends from far lower to slightly higher than the estimate of 36,000 deaths caused by seasonal flu in a typical year.

The analysis doesn’t project how many people will contract swine flu but “how bad it will be,” says lead author Marc Lipsitch of the Harvard School of Public Health.

At the low end, the estimates suggest that for every 10% of the population to develop flu symptoms, there will be 1,500 to 2,700 deaths, 6,600 to 11,000 people in intensive care, and 36,000 to 78,000 hospitalizations. At the high end, for the same percentage of the population, swine flu could cause 7,800 to 29,000 deaths, 40,000 to 140,000 people needing intensive care, and 250,000 to 790,000 hospitalizations.

The calculations represent a marked reduction from an August report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. That report proposed a “plausible” death toll that could fall anywhere between 30,000 and 90,000. Lipsitch, who worked on the August report, says the earlier estimate was based on “limited data” because the researchers began their work not long after the virus first surfaced in April, when little was known about the shape of the epidemic to come.

To fill gaps, Lipsitch and his team at Harvard and Britain’s Medical Research Council used data from Milwaukee and New York City. The data confirmed that swine flu has its biggest effect on children younger than 4 and adults 18 to 64. The study appears in the Public Library of Science (PLoS) Medicine journal.

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its own estimate of the scope of the epidemic. The agency says at least 22 million Americans have gotten the flu since April. About 3,900 have died, including about 540 children.

Beth Bell of the CDC says the fact that researchers used “real live data” lends credibility to the research. She says the estimates roughly agree with those released last month by the CDC.

“It’s an insight into how flu kills,” says institute director Anthony Fauci.

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