Sometimes comparisons are drawn between the seasonal flu and Covid-19. But how many die from the seasonal flu in Switzerland in a typical year? According to Switzerland’s Federal Statistical Office, surprisingly few.
Over the ten years from 2009 to 2018, an annual average of 1181 people died from the flu in Switzerland, according to death certificate data collated by the Federal Statistical Office, a rate of around 14 per million. From 2009 to 2018, the number of deaths attributed to flu have ranged from 31 people (2010) to 3211 people (2018) in the worst year.
Overall, from 2009 to 2018, flu accounted for 0.2% of all deaths, which averaged 64,6921 annually.
Flu deaths fall under the category of deaths from respiratory disease. They account for around 3% of the 4,1401 deaths in this group. The most common causes of death from respiratory disease are chronic bronchitis (1,9111) and pneumonia (1,2881). Smoking is the main cause of chronic bronchitis, while pneumonia is typically caused by diseases, including bacterial, fungal and viral infections.
Other unlikely causes of death in Switzerland include tuberculosis (141), AIDS (341) and asthma (941). Infectious diseases, excluding respiratory ones, accounted for an average of 768 annual deaths from 2009 to 2018, or 1.2% of total deaths.
Dying on Swiss roads is unlikely too. From 2009 to 2018, the number road deaths averaged 2011 and ranged from 1651 (2016) to 2801 (2010). Swiss road deaths accounted for less than 0.4% of annual deaths on average over the ten years from 2009 to 2018.
The biggest killers in Switzerland are non-communicable diseases – diseases that cannot be caught from someone else – such as cardio vascular disease (33%), cancer (26%) and dementia (9%).
Switzerland’s death-certificate based flu deaths are similar to other countries. For example, in England, the average annual number of deaths attributed to flu over the three years from 2017 to 2019 was 1,0381, a rate of 19 per million, a figure similar to the 14 per million suffered in Switzerland.
It is important to note that fatal cases of flu typically involve pneumonia. So, pneumonia deaths where the original cause was unknown, are likely to include some who were suffering from the flu. In addition, flu can sometimes trigger other complications that can lead to death. So the official death-certificate based numbers of flu deaths are likely to underestimate the true number to some degree. One estimate puts the number of annual flu deaths in Switzerland at between 400 and 1,000, and health authorities recommend vaccinating against it.
The undercounting challenge also extends to Covid-19. During the deadliest weeks, recorded Covid-19 deaths in many countries accounted for only a portion of excess deaths – the difference between total deaths in an average year compered to current deaths. In Spain and Italy, recorded Covid-19 deaths were only 53% of total excess deaths during each nation’s deadliest week, according to figures compiled by The Economist. In other European countries, such as Bulgaria (35%), Romania (33%), Poland (25%) and Serbia (20%), the percentage of excess deaths recorded as Covid-19 deaths at weekly death peaks were even lower. Further afield in South Africa (26%), Russia (17%), Bolivia (15%) and Ecuador (5%), theses percentages were even lower. Peak weekly Covid-19 deaths were 73% of excess deaths in Switzerland, according to the same data.
1These numbers are the underlying cause of death on death certificates, defined as the disease or injury that initiated the train of events directly leading to death, or the circumstances of the accident or violence that produced the fatal injury, a WHO definition. Some numbers are averages over several years.