This figure for flu deaths is wrong

27 October 2020
What was claimed

The flu killed 64,000 people in 2018.

Our verdict

Incorrect. 64,000 people died in January 2018 in England and Wales of all causes. Public Health England estimates that across the 2017/18 flu season there were around 22,000 deaths associated with flu in England.

A block of text making comparisons between the number of deaths from flu and the scale of the Covid-19 pandemic has been shared on Facebook.

The text claims that “a real pandemic would be self-evident” with “bodies piling up on the street”. It adds: “The flu killed 64,000 people in this country in 2018, and you didn't bat an eye.”

This figure for flu deaths is far too high, and Covid-19 meets the definition of a “real pandemic”.

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What counts as a pandemic?

The outbreak of Covid-19 across the world certainly meets definitions of pandemics that we’ve come across. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says flu pandemics specifically are characterised by human-to-human spread of the virus in at least two countries within the same WHO region and “community level outbreaks in at least one other country in a different WHO region.”

More generally it says a pandemic is the worldwide spread of a new disease, and that aspect of novelty is also shared by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) with respect to flu pandemics. 

The Oxford Dictionary of Epidemiology says a pandemic is “An epidemic occurring worldwide or over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries, and usually affecting a large number of people.”

Figures from Johns Hopkins University suggest that over 43 million people worldwide have contracted Covid-19, with over one million deaths.

While Covid-19 is not the deadliest disease the world has ever seen, in part the death toll has been kept down due to worldwide restrictions on behaviour that could cause the virus to spread more quickly. 

And while the UK has not seen incidents of “bodies piling up on the street”, if that is the Facebook user’s criteria for defining a pandemic, it has arguably been met elsewhere in the world. 

How many people die of flu?

As for the claim that the flu killed 64,000 people in the UK (where the post’s author says they are based) in 2018, this is incorrect. 

The only reference we’ve found to a UK figure like that in connection with the 2018 flu outbreak, is that in January 2018 around 64,000 people died in England and Wales, at the time the highest monthly total since 2006.

But this figure was for England and Wales and covered deaths from all causes, not just flu.

Public Health England estimated that over the 2017/18 flu season, there were around 22,000 deaths associated with flu in England. This was one of the highest flu death tolls in recent years, but is still significantly lower than the current death toll from Covid.

It’s possible that the post might be mistaking the number of deaths in the UK for a figure from another country. In the USA, the CDC estimates that 61,000 people may have died in the 2017/18 flu season, which again was the highest number in recent years. The CDC estimates so far that there have been 211,000 deaths involving Covid-19 in the USA.

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