Swine flu has likely sickened more than 500,000 people in Washington, the state’s Health Department estimates. The surprising new number is based on the statistical modeling that federal officials used to determine 22 million Americans have had the swine flu since April. Nearly 4,000 people in the U.S., including 540 children, have died from the viral infection.
The national figures roughly quadrupled the previous death estimates, but they don’t necessarily mean that swine flu has worsened. Most cases still don’t require a doctor’s care. Instead, the numbers are a long-awaited better attempt to quantify the new flu’s toll.
“I am expecting all of these numbers, unfortunately, to continue to rise,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We have a long flu season ahead of us.”
Official Washington and Idaho swine flu statistics do not offer an accurate representation of swine flu’s spread because they concentrate only on hospitalizations and deaths.
In Washington, for example, the Department of Health reported earlier this week that 918 people have been hospitalized with the flu and that 28 have died.
Idaho has reported 742 lab-confirmed cases of swine flu and 13 deaths since September.
But spokespersons from both agencies said those numbers likely represent a fraction of swine flu infections.
Contributing to the CDC’s expectations that swine flu cases will continue to rise is the tight supply of vaccine to combat the illness. Fewer than 42 million doses are currently available, several million fewer than the CDC predicted last week.
A new Associated Press-GfK poll shows nearly one in six parents has gotten at least some of their children vaccinated against swine flu since inoculations began last month. Another 14 percent of parents sought vaccine but couldn’t find any.
Tim Church, spokesman for the Washington State Department of Health, said Thursday that 678,000 doses of swine flu vaccine were now in the state or en route.
“This is a serious illness, and people need to treat it that way,” he said, warning that some health officials worry swine flu could come in waves.
Only about 30 percent of children routinely get seasonal flu vaccinations during a normal winter. Swine flu vaccination rates suggest that the CDC’s target-the-young message has gotten through.
But three times as many adults have tried and failed to find vaccine for themselves as have succeeded. And interest among the young adults who also are at high risk is waning fast, the AP-GfK poll of 1,006 adults nationwide found.
On Thursday, Schuchat again urged patience in seeking vaccine.
“It’s a marathon and not a sprint,” she said. “More vaccine is being ordered and delivered and used every day.”
Until now, the CDC conservatively estimated more than 1,000 swine flu deaths and “many millions” of new infections. The agency was devoting more time to battling the pandemic than to counting it, and earlier figures were based on laboratory-confirmed cases even though doctors largely quit using flu tests months ago – and experts knew that deaths from things like the bacterial pneumonia that often follows flu were being missed.
The question now is how the new estimates will influence a public that largely views swine flu as a minor threat.
The AP-GfK poll, conducted last weekend, found just 23 percent of responders – and 27 percent of parents – were very likely to keep seeking vaccine.