Just the flu

It is just flu, they say.

What, seasonal flu, which in the freezing winter of 2017/18 is likely to have significantly contributed to the 50,100 excess winter deaths in England and Wales? The same flu that in the winter of 2014/15 contributed to 43,850 excess deaths?

Or pandemic flu, which is consistently the top risk on the Cabinet Office’s National Risk Register?

Influenza pandemics arise as a result of a new influenza virus that is markedly different from recently circulating influenza viruses and therefore to which few people, if any, have immunity. As a result of rapid spread from person to person, pandemics have significant global human health consequences. In addition to the severe health effects, a pandemic is also likely to cause significant wider social and economic damage and disruption. — Cabinet Office, National Risk Register Of Civil Emergencies 2017 , p12-13

Flu pandemics, about which the UK Government’s Pandemic flu panning guidance states the following?

They present a real and daunting challenge to the economic and social wellbeing of any country, as well as a serious risk to the health of its population.

There are important differences between ‘ordinary’ seasonal flu and pandemic flu. These differences explain why we regard pandemic flu as such a serious threat.

It’s just the flu, they say, as if it can’t also be deadly, and as if all of the nation’s emergency pandemic planning is for but a sniffle and a sneeze.

It’s just the flu, they say, ignoring life-threatening complications which can affect the old and infirm.

Preparing for the worst, the government’s own planning for a flu pandemic states:

In the UK, up to one half of the population may become infected and between 20,000 and 750,000 additional deaths (that is deaths that would not have happened over the same period of time had a pandemic not taken place) may have occurred by the end of a pandemic in the UK.

Even if it was just the flu, a serious flu pandemic like the H1N1 avian flu of 1918 would likely cause significant disruption to society too.

Indeed, the fact that the government had been focusing its efforts so heavily on planning for a flu pandemic might account for its unpreparedness for a SARS outbreak. Despite the pandemic of 2003, SARS just wasn’t on the radar.

As it is, the data analysed by CEBM for all excess deaths regardless of cause on the death certificate currently looks like this:

This year’s excess deaths likely to be partly attributable to flu can be seen in the peaks on the left side of the graph. On the right, starting in the middle of April: that’s just the flu. Reach for the next meme and repeat.

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