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Thursday 27th October 2016

Estimates of swine flu deaths flawed

15th July 2009

Researchers fear that estimates of the proportion of people who will die if infected with swine flu are flawed.

The current death rate for the UK and US is 0.5% - or five people out of every 1,000 infected – but new analysis from Imperial College London suggests these figures may be wide of the mark.

There are three main factors: the number of people who are infected but recover at home without receiving diagnosis; the possibility that deaths from swine flu are being attributed falsely to other causes of death, such as heart attacks or pneumonia (leading to underestimates of the death rate); or statistics are distorted by a time-lag between the point at which someone is infected and the time they die.

It means doctors know how many patients are dying of swine flu in hospitals but not the number of cases that are life-threatening, meaning they are unable to clearly establish the case-fatality rate.

Azra Ghani, head of a team at Imperial College London tracking development of the epidemic in the UK said doctors do not know the denominator.

As a consequence the team fears “dividing the number of deaths by the number of cases may be flawed.”

Studies are already planned to rectify the shortcomings by monitoring how the virus is spreading among people in the community. That will see researchers hoping to monitor individual households initially free of the virus.

"It'll give a much better idea of those whose symptoms are so mild they don't make it into the family doctor's surgery," said Ghani.


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