In 1999 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report on what might happen if a pandemic virus – similar to the relatively mild virus of 1968 – struck the United States. It estimated that between 89,000 and 207,000 people in the U.S. would die. Why so many?
John Barry responds in The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History (Penguin, 2005):
“The reason for this high toll is the same reason that the CDC has concluded that, despite medical advances, more Americans are now dying from ordinary, endemic influenza than in the past: in 1918, 1957, and even 1968 relatively few people alive had impaired immune systems. Today a large and growing number of people do – primarily the elderly, but also cancer survivors who have undergone chemotherapy or radiation, transplant recipients, those infected with HIV, and others.”
The figures in the first paragraph appear in Barry’s fine book, and his endnotes give their source as “Modeling the Economic Impact of Pandemic Influenza in the United States: Implications for Setting Priorities for Intervention,” by Martin I. Meltzer, Nancy J. Cox, and Keiji Fukuda. (See Figure 2 under “Results – Deaths.”) Meltzer’s paper has other information about the possible scope of a pandemic, including the percentages of deaths expected in different age groups.
Barry also writes that “the World Health Organization estimates that a virus akin to that of 1968 would, in today’s world, kill between 2 million and 7.4 million people worldwide.” The Washington Post reported in 2006 that WHO estimated that a virus akin to that of 1918 would kill 62 million people worldwide.
The CDC’s projected figures are much lower than those in a United States Army War College Program Research Paper “The 1918 Flu Pandemic: Implications for Homeland Security in the New Millennium,” which you can find easily by pasting the phrase in quotations into the Google search bar (though I can’t seem to link to it). That paper puts the estimated death toll for a flu pandemic at 1.7 million Americans.
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