Professor and Head
Hong Kong University
One measure of the severity of a pandemic influenza outbreak at the individual level is the risk of death among people infected by the new virus. However, there are complications in estimating both the numerator and denominator. Regarding the numerator, statistical estimates of the excess deaths associated with influenza virus infections tend to exceed the number of deaths associated with laboratory-confirmed infection. Regarding the denominator, few infections are laboratory confirmed, while differences in case definitions and approaches to case ascertainment can lead to wide variation in case fatality risk estimates. Serological surveillance can be used to estimate the cumulative incidence of infection as a denominator that is more comparable across studies. We estimated that the first wave of the influenza A(H1N1)pdm09 virus in 2009 was associated with approximately 232 (95% confidence interval: 136, 328) excess deaths of all ages in Hong Kong, mainly among the elderly. The point estimates of the risk of death on a per-infection basis increased substantially with age, from below 1 per 100,000 infections in children to 1,099 per 100,000 infections in those 60-69 years of age. Substantial variation in the age-specific infection fatality risk complicates comparison of the severity of different influenza strains.