Background: During the 2009 influenza pandemic, uncertainty surrounding the seriousness of human infections with the H1N1pdm09 virus hindered appropriate public health response. One measure of seriousness is the case fatality risk, defined as the probability of mortality among people classified as cases.
Methods: We conducted a systematic review to summarize published estimates of the case fatality risk of the pandemic influenza H1N1pdm09 virus. Only studies that reported population-based estimates were included.
Results: We included 77 estimates of the case fatality risk from 50 published studies, about one-third of which were published within the first 9 months of the pandemic. We identified very substantial heterogeneity in published estimates, ranging from less than 1 to more than 10,000 deaths per 100,000 cases or infections. The choice of case definition in the denominator accounted for substantial heterogeneity, with the higher estimates based on laboratory-confirmed cases (point estimates = 0–13,500 per 100,000 cases) compared with symptomatic cases (point estimates = 0–1,200 per 100,000 cases) or infections (point estimates = 1–10 per 100,000 infections). Risk based on symptomatic cases increased substantially with age.
Conclusions: Our review highlights the difficulty in estimating the seriousness of infection with a novel influenza virus using the case fatality risk. In addition, substantial variability in age-specific estimates complicates the interpretation of the overall case fatality risk and comparisons among populations. A consensus is needed on how to define and measure the seriousness of infection before the next pandemic.