NEW YORK — An estimated 80,000 Americans died of flu and its complications last winter — the disease’s highest death toll in at least four decades.

The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Robert Redfield, revealed the total in an interview Tuesday night with The Associated Press.

Flu experts knew it was a very bad season, but at least one found size of the estimate surprising.

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“That’s huge,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a Vanderbilt University vaccine expert. The tally was nearly twice as much as what health officials previously considered a bad year, he said.

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In recent years, flu-related deaths have ranged from about 12,000 to — in the worst year — 56,000, according to the CDC.

Last fall and winter, the U.S. went through one of the most severe flu seasons in recent memory. It was driven by a kind of flu that tends to put more people in the hospital and cause more deaths, particularly among young children and the elderly.

The season peaked in early February. It was mostly over by the end of March, although some flu continued to circulate.

Making a bad year worse, the flu vaccine didn’t work very well. Experts nevertheless say vaccination is still worth it, because it makes illnesses less severe and save lives.

“I’d like to see more people get vaccinated,” Redfield told the AP at an event in New York. “We lost 80,000 people last year to the flu.”

CDC officials do not have exact counts of how many people die from flu each year. Flu is so common that not all flu cases are reported, and flu is not always listed on death certificates. So the CDC uses statistical models, which are periodically revised, to make estimates.

Fatal complications from the flu can include pneumonia, stroke and heart attack.

CDC officials called the 80,000 figure preliminary, and it may be slightly revised. But they said it is not expected to go down.

It eclipses the estimates for every flu season going back to the winter of 1976-1977. Estimates for many earlier seasons were not readily available.

Last winter was not the worst flu season on record, however. The 1918 flu pandemic, which lasted nearly two years, killed more than 500,000 Americans, historians estimate.

It’s not easy to compare flu seasons through history, partly because the nation’s population is changing. There are more Americans — and more elderly Americans — today than in decades past, noted Dr. Daniel Jernigan, a CDC flu expert.

U.S. health officials on Thursday are scheduled to hold a media event in Washington, D.C., to stress the importance of vaccinations to protect against whatever flu circulates this coming winter.

And how bad is it going to be? So far, the flu that’s been detected is a milder strain, and early signs are that the vaccine is shaping up to be a good match, Jernigan said.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen, but we’re seeing more encouraging signs than we were early last year,” he said.

— Mike Stobbe

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  • Denise, I am so sorry to hear you are ill. Hope you are feeling better by now. What strain of the flu virus did (or do) you have? Three years ago my sister took the flu shot and still got very sick. Doctor said it was “probably” one not covered by the flu shot that was given that year. Just wondering???

  • Wow, it used to be that stupid people were at least smart enough to find the answers that smart people had, now they have some crazy idea that the idiots have everything all worked out because mercury or fluoride or maybe even contrails or something….
    The internet ruined the world because it gave every moron a voice.

    • John, you are showing us all what a good example of what happens when “stupid” “idiots” act like “morons”. The internet has nothing to do with ruining the world. That very comment shows the lack of intelligent thinking on your part. People have always had something to say, just because you do not approve of what is said certainly is not changing the world. You either listen to the idiots or you don’t. But if you believe the idiots then what does that make you? If you make so many ignorant assumptions based on the little bit you THINK you understand, you are the bigger problem.

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