Influenza—apart from physical discomfort— brings economic consequences, as well. Experts estimate that the overall cost of influenza to the American economy exceeds $87 billion during an average flu season. Overall cost takes into account not only direct medical expenses, but also absenteeism and losses in productivity, projected lost earnings due to illness, and declines in retail spending and tourism. The CDC estimates, based on 2003 data, that the annual direct medical cost due to influenza is at least $10.4 billion. With this year’s flu pandemic causing New York and Boston to declare a public health emergency, influenza-associated expenditures could surpass the average overall cost.

Who is bearing these steep costs? The three largest health insurers, UnitedHealth Group Inc., WellPoint Inc., and Aetna Inc., are expected to spend up to $100 million more than usual during this flu season on hospital and doctor visits for insured patients infected with influenza.

The toll of this flu pandemic is evident also in mortality and hospitalization rates, which have continued to rise through the end of January. Since October 1 and January 19, 6,191 laboratory-confirmed influenza-associated hospitalizations were reported to the CDC, reaching 22.2 flu-associated hospitalizations per 100,000. In a January 18 telebriefing, CDC Director Thomas Frieden, MD, MPH, predicted that the rate of influenza-related hospitalizations and deaths would continue to increase despite a decline in overall influenza activity.

CDC and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommend that annual influenza vaccination continues as long as influenza viruses are actively circulating. Additionally, people six months of age or older who have not been vaccinated yet this season should be vaccinated.

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