Last year’s flu season death toll and 2018-19 flu coverage

Bara Vaida

About Bara Vaida

Bara Vaida (@barav) is AHCJ's core topic leader on infectious diseases. An independent journalist, she has written extensively about health policy and infectious diseases. Her work has appeared in outlets that include the National Journal, Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg News, McClatchy News Service, MSNBC, NPR, Politico and The Washington Post.

Photo: Leonie via Flickr

In last year’s flu season, 80,000 people died, including 180 children, and 900,000 people were hospitalized, making it the worst flu season in 40 years – underscoring the importance of seasonal flu coverage for every public health reporter.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Robert Redfield unveiled the figures first during an interview with the Associated Press on Sept. 26. CDC officials confirmed the figures at a news briefing at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. on Sept. 27.

The large number of people who were sickened or died were likely because of a combination of factors, including lower flu vaccination rates and a flu strain which disproportionately impacts seniors, according to Daniel Jernigan, M.D. director of the influenza division of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. The majority of those who died or were hospitalized during the season were over 65.

“It was a significantly bad year,” Jernigan said.

As far as whether the 2018-19 flu season will be as terrible as the past year, Jernigan said it was “far too early to say” and that Americans shouldn’t take any chances that this year would be better.

Surgeon General Jerome Adams emphasized that more people need to get the flu shot this coming season, as just 57.9 percent of Americans got a flu shot, a slight drop from the 59 percent in the year before that. Of the 180 children that died from the flu last year, 80 percent had not received a flu shot.

“It is important for folks to be aware that they all get the flu from someone else,” Adams said. “The 80,000 people that died of the flu, they got that from someone. Someone else caused one of those 80,000 to die.”

The flu shot not only reduces the chances that a person will get the flu, but also if they do get the flu, their illness will be milder, he said. The flu shot also reduces the chances that a healthy person will pass on the flu to someone with a compromised immune system.

Adams added that getting the flu shot is creating “community immunity.”

William Schaffner, M.D., medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, which sponsored the press briefing, also underscored that when a person gets the flu, the body’s immune system kicks in and remains inflamed for several weeks, even after recovery. For some people, that continued inflammatory response could increase the chance of having a heart attack or stroke.

“The damage the flu causes continues, even after one recovers,” Schaffner said. He added that individuals over 65 should also look into getting a vaccine to prevent pneumococcal pneumonia, which also can flare during the flu season.

“These are preventable diseases and we have vaccines to prevent them,” he said.

Wendy Sue Swanson, M.D. chief of digital innovation at Seattle Children’s Hospital, emphasized the toll last season’s flu season took on children and noted that kids have lots of “snot” that they spread around to one another, so flu shots are particularly important for anyone in continuous contact with children.

For reporters wanting to know how the flu season is going this coming year, Swanson welcomed them to check in with her Seattle Children’s blog where she plans to post updates on the flu and its impact.

Further, Laura Riley, M.D., chair of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Weill Cornell Medicine, highlighted the importance of expectant mothers getting a flu shot. Last year, less than half of pregnant women got a flu shot and outcomes for “pregnant women who get the flu are worse” than for women who do get the flu. Further, a flu shot provides immune protection for newborns for several months after they are born, she said.

For a tip sheet on coving the flu: see our updated seasonal flu tip sheet, which includes contact information to reach the public health experts attending the flu briefing.

1 thought on “Last year’s flu season death toll and 2018-19 flu coverage

  1. Roxanne Nelson

    I am wondering how many of those people actually died of the flu. For years and years, the CDC kept repeating the same mantra of 36,000 people dying of the flu every year–which wasn’t a real number at all. Some investigations into the CDCs own reports showed that they bundled influenza and pneumonia together, and the actual number for influenza alone was quite small. It seemed that the number never changed, whether it was a “bad” year or “good” year, or whether the vaccine was minimally effective or more effective. You would expect the death rate to go up when there was a vaccine shortage–proving that the vaccine could prevent deaths–but the mantra never changed. Now the CDC is saying that 3,000 and 49,000 people of the flu every year–that is a huge difference and pretty meaningless.

    So I am wondering how may of the 80,000 deaths are actually from the flu, or are just bundled together with respiratory illnesses. How many of those people received a vaccine and how many didn’t..

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