This site is intended for health professionals only

Public Health England admits winter death spike was due to flu and cold weather

Public health experts have concluded that cold weather and influenza were behind a ‘very substantial’ spike in elderly death rates this year, after an internal investigation.

Public Health England launched the investigation after an internal report found around 500 more deaths in the over 85s in the first four months of the year, compared with the same period in 2012.

The document, produced by Public Health England, found a ‘very substantial’ increase in mortality rates in the over 85s and also that death rates in patients aged over 65 years old were consistently higher than in 2012, which itself was higher than the previous two years.

But following in-depth scrutiny of the statistics, the public health body found that although some deaths were avoidable, the rates were not exceptional compared to the last 12 years and could be explained by cold weather spikes and respiratory causes.

Its report said that although 2012/13 did see the highest excess all-cause mortality in England since 2008/09, ‘further analysis showed the excess was found predominantly in the elderly and in deaths coded as resulting from respiratory causes’.

The report said: ‘The magnitude of excess all-cause mortality varied considerably by region within England. Excess mortality in 2012/13 coincided with influenza, RSV and cold weather, with an unusually prolonged influenza season and late cold period reported.

‘Statistical regression modelling of excess mortality over the past few seasons, including 2012/13, has shown influenza to be a major explanatory factor.’

Commenting in a letter accompanying the release, Public Health England chief knowledge officer Professor John Newton said: ‘There have been more deaths than expected but the explanation would seem to be a combination of circulating influenza and cold weather.

‘Many of these deaths are preventable and these data illustrate the need to work harder to protect vulnerable people from both flu and extremes of weather. The number of excess deaths this year is greater than in the past two years but is by no means exceptional when compared to the last 12 years.

‘We have also decided to publish the mortality data separately from the flu reports in the future so they are more readily accessible to a wider audience, although they will continue to be an important component of the flu reports as well.’