The 2009 swine flu pandemic ended up having a much greater impact from the deaths it caused than a regular influenza season. It killed 18,550 people all across the world according to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) official count. Those were the deaths of people who had laboratory tested and confirmed cases of swine flu.
But a new analysis has now been released which states that the actual death toll was at least 10 times higher. There were at least 203,000 deaths due to the swine flu. It might even be twice that amount, if the people are also counted who died from other illnesses such as heart attacks, which were triggered by the flu.
If the conservative number of 203,000 is used, that is actually about the same number of deaths as a normal flu season. So the figure basically shows that the H1N1 flu pandemic of 2009 was not as bad as once believed even though many more deaths are believed to really have happened.
But the present study, which was ordered by the WHO, does help to explain why the agency had such a hard time in figuring out a response to the swine flu pandemic. The WHO leaders were condemned for taking much too long in declaring a pandemic, when a spreading of the disease had clearly met the definition. Critics then charged the agency with pushing up the situation from pressure by vaccine makers who wanted to recover their lost investments.
The low number of laboratory confirmed deaths just added to the mix-up, stated a team of global health researchers who released a report of their study in the journal PLOS Medicine on Tuesday. Such a modest number caused many to wonder where all the fear came from, and has made many question whether the pandemic response was extreme. They did not realize the death number was just from lab reports and not the actual number of deaths.
There wound up being all kinds of conspiracy theories, stated the study’s main author Lone Simonsen, who works at George Washington University, but it is practically impossible to see how people could have responded any other way.
It has been noticed that the H1N1 swine flu was vastly different in how it affected different places in the world. North America was hit a lot worse than Australia or Europe. It is still unknown why the flu had such a dissimilar impact in different areas.
Scientists believe that people who were exposed to an H1N1 seasonal strain which is only distantly related to the new, pandemic virus, might be set up by the body to react in a more severe manner, as with any prior exposure to the flu. This is the direct opposite of how flu vaccines work.
Studies recently performed in animals seem to support such a theory. Actually, the H1N1 strain that was going around in the season before the recent pandemic was just such a distant cousin.
Under this theory, younger people who did not have the benefit of protection from the much more closely related 1918 virus which went around in the early decades of the last century, might have been basically set up to have a more severe response to the pandemic H1N1 strain just by being exposed to the far more distantly related seasonal H1N1 flu virus.
Yet many Europeans were exposed to the distantly related H1N1 as well, and they did not have as many flu deaths in 2009. This means that the theory is not complete as an explanation.
The global variations are still not understood as to why Americans were harder hit than people in Europe, stated Dr. Michael Osterholm, who is a disease specialist at the University of Minnesota.
The current study also showed that a high number of deaths happened among children, teenagers, young adults, and especially pregnant women.
What seemed to set this pandemic apart was not the total number of deaths, but that these deaths happened in a much younger group of people than is normally seen during a usual flu season, stated Dr. Anthony Mounts, who works for the WHO’s Global Influenza Program. So, if anyone looks at the 2009 pandemic in terms of the lives that were lost, it ended up having a much greater impact than a regular influenza season.
By Kimberly Ruble
The Sacramento Bee
The Shreveport Times