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Originally published December 10, 2009 at 8:10 AM | Page modified December 10, 2009 at 3:18 PM

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Britain: Swine flu less deadly than first thought

Swine flu is far less dangerous than originally feared, British officials said Thursday - about 100 times less lethal than the 1918 Spanish flu.

AP Medical Writer

LONDON —

Swine flu is far less dangerous than originally feared, British officials said Thursday - about 100 times less lethal than the 1918 Spanish flu.

To determine how deadly the virus is, the British health department tracked all reported swine flu patients hospitalized between July and November. In a paper published online in the British journal, BMJ, experts estimated that out of every 100,000 infected people in Britain, about 26 died.

That is about 100 times less deadly than the devastating 1918 Spanish flu, which killed at least 50 million people worldwide. And swine flu appears to be nearly 10 times less fatal than the flu pandemics in 1957 and 1968, the British numbers showed.

Earlier this week, American researchers released a similar analysis of the virus and said swine flu, or H1N1, may turn out to be the mildest pandemic on record. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated swine flu has a lower death rate than seasonal flu.

British officials also said swine flu cases fell by about half last week, with an estimated 11,000 new cases.

When the World Health Organization declared swine flu to be a pandemic in June, it described it as "moderate." Most people who catch swine flu have mild symptoms like a fever or cough, and recover without needing medical treatment.

A pandemic is a measure of how widely a virus spreads, not its severity. Because flu viruses evolve constantly, swine flu could mutate into a more dangerous form.

While cases appear to have peaked in several countries, including the U.S. and Britain, experts fear there could be another surge in the winter.

In the BMJ analysis, British experts said about two thirds of patients who died in the U.K. had medical conditions that would have qualified them to get the swine flu vaccine when it was first available. The experts also said most people who died got Tamiflu too late, a finding they said justifies Britain's policy of giving Tamiflu to everyone, including previously healthy people, who report swine flu symptoms.

That contradicts WHO advice, which recommends countries save Tamiflu for at-risk patients - such as pregnant women, the elderly, children and people with underlying medical problems. Other scientists have raised concerns about widespread Tamiflu use, since the drug comes with side effects like nausea, insomnia, and nightmares.

Using Tamiflu liberally - as Britain does - may also encourage drug resistance. Despite having a fraction of the swine flu cases logged in the U.S., the number of viruses that appear to be resistant to Tamiflu found in both countries is nearly identical: 25 in Britain and 26 in the U.S.

In Britain, Tamiflu is largely dispensed by call center workers at a national swine flu hotline who have no medical training. WHO advises people to only take the drug on a doctor's recommendation.

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On the Net:

http://www.bmj.com

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