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What a Bad Flu Season Could Cost the U.S. Economy

This year's flu season looks worse than usual.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) warned last week that the dominant influenza virus right now, H3N2, typically signals a severe flu season, resulting in more deaths and hospital trips than average. Even worse: About half of the H3N2 viruses detected so far are different strains from the ones included in this year’s vaccine, which means flu shots will be less effective.

The resulting misery for millions of Americans is also lousy news for the economy. Flu incurs direct costs, such as the price of medical treatment, and indirect costs, such as lost productivity when workers stay home sick. There’s also the cost of lost life: Influenza kills between 3,000 and 49,000 people in the U.S. each year, generally older people, young children, or people with medical conditions such as lung or heart disease that make them vulnerable to complications. The CDC recommends that everyone (except infants less than six months old) get vaccinated, especially those considered high-risk because of other health conditions.

Tallying the total cost of flu is difficult. In a 2007 article published in the journal Vaccine, CDC researchers put the total economic burden at $87 billion annually, in 2003 dollars, counting a statistical measure that puts a dollar value on lost life. Among the costs: 3.1 million days patients spend in hospitals, 10 times as many doctors visits, and 44 million days of missed work. The estimates come with a high level of uncertainty, though: Researchers calculated the total cost in a range from $47 billion to $150 billion a year. The CDC is updating these numbers, but there’s no telling when they’ll be ready.

Read more: Bloomberg BusinessWeek


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