Steven Riley and colleagues analyze a community cohort study from the 2009 (H1N1) influenza pandemic in Hong Kong, and found that more children than adults were infected with H1N1, but children were less likely to progress to severe disease than adults.
While patterns of incidence of clinical influenza have been well described, much uncertainty remains over patterns of incidence of infection. The 2009 pandemic provided both the motivation and opportunity to investigate patterns of mild and asymptomatic infection using serological techniques. However, to date, only broad epidemiological patterns have been defined, based on largely cross-sectional study designs with convenience sampling frameworks.
Methods and Findings
We conducted a paired serological survey of a cohort of households in Hong Kong, recruited using random digit dialing, and gathered data on severe confirmed cases from the public hospital system (>90% inpatient days). Paired sera were obtained from 770 individuals, aged 3 to 103, along with detailed individual-level and household-level risk factors for infection. Also, we extrapolated beyond the period of our study using time series of severe cases and we simulated alternate study designs using epidemiological parameters obtained from our data. Rates of infection during the period of our study decreased substantially with age: for 3–19 years, the attack rate was 39% (31%–49%); 20–39 years, 8.9% (5.3%–14.7%); 40–59 years, 5.3% (3.5%–8.0%); and 60 years or older, 0.77% (0.18%–4.2%). We estimated parameters for a parsimonious model of infection in which a linear age term and the presence of a child in the household were used to predict the log odds of infection. Patterns of symptom reporting suggested that children experienced symptoms more often than adults. The overall rate of confirmed pandemic (H1N1) 2009 influenza (H1N1pdm) deaths was 7.6 (6.2–9.5) per 100,000 infections. However, there was substantial and progressive increase in deaths per 100,000 infections with increasing age from 0.66 (0.65–0.86) for 3–19 years up to 220 (50–4,000) for 60 years and older. Extrapolating beyond the period of our study using rates of severe disease, we estimated that 56% (43%–69%) of 3–19 year olds and 16% (13%–18%) of people overall were infected by the pandemic strain up to the end of January 2010. Using simulation, we found that, during 2009, larger cohorts with shorter follow-up times could have rapidly provided similar data to those presented here.
Should H1N1pdm evolve to be more infectious in older adults, average rates of severe disease per infection could be higher in future waves: measuring such changes in severity requires studies similar to that described here. The benefit of effective vaccination against H1N1pdm infection is likely to be substantial for older individuals. Revised pandemic influenza preparedness plans should include prospective serological cohort studies. Many individuals, of all ages, remained susceptible to H1N1pdm after the main 2009 wave in Hong Kong.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
From June 2009 to August 2010, the world was officially (according to specific WHO criteria—WHO phase 6 pandemic alert) in the grip of an Influenza A pandemic with a new strain of the H1N1 virus. During this time, more than 214 countries and overseas territories reported laboratory confirmed cases of pandemic influenza H1N1 2009 with almost 20,000 deaths.
While much is already known about patterns of incidence of clinical influenza, the patterns of infection incidence are much more uncertain, because many influenza infections are either asymptomatic or cause only mild symptoms. This means that it is difficult to obtain accurate estimates of risk factors for infection and the overall burden of disease using only clinical surveillance. However, without accurate estimates of infection incidence across different risk groups, it is not possible to establish the number of infections that give rise to severe disease (the per infection rate of severe disease). Consequently, it is difficult to give evidence-based advice for individuals, groups, and populations about the potential benefits of interventions including drugs and vaccines that might reduce the risk of influenza infection.
Why Was This Study Done?
During the 2009 pandemic, some countries and territories, such as Hong Kong, were able to investigate patterns of mild and asymptomatic infection using serological techniques, thus providing information that may help to fill this knowledge gap. Given the high levels of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing and the robust reporting of hospital episodes, the main H1N1 pandemic wave in Hong Kong (during September 2009) provided an opportunity to implement a prospective cohort study to investigate the incidence of infection.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find? The researchers collected data on the asymptomatic symptoms of influenza by randomly selecting households to participate in the study. Each member of the household willing to participate had a baseline blood sample taken before the main wave of the pandemic (July to September 2009), then, when clinical surveillance suggested that the main peak in transmission had passed, after the main wave (November 2009 to February 2010). During the study period, participants were asked to report any flu-like symptoms in three ways: to phone the study team and report symptoms in real time; to fill out a paper diary with the day and symptoms; and to report symptoms during a follow-up interview. In parallel, the researchers monitored data on every patient with H1N1 admitted to intensive care units or who died while in the hospital. The researchers then estimated the number of H1N1 infections (infection incidence) per severe case by developing a likelihood-based framework. They used a simulation model to investigate alternate study designs and to validate their estimates of the rate of severe disease per infection.
Using these methods, the researchers found that rates of H1N1 infection during the study period decreased substantially with age: for 3–19 years, the attack rate was 39%; 20–39 years, 8.9%; 40–59 years, 5.3%; and 60 years or older, 0.77%. In addition, patterns of symptom reporting indicated that children experienced symptoms more often than adults. The overall rate of confirmed H1N1 deaths was 7.6 per 100,000 infections. However, there was a substantial and progressive increase in deaths per 100,000 infections with increasing age from 0.66 for 3–19 years up to 220 for 60 years and older. Statistical modeling suggested that 56% of 3–19 year olds and 16% of people overall were infected by the pandemic strain up to the end of January 2010.
What Do These Findings Mean?
The results of this study suggest that more children were infected with H1N1 than adults but most of them did not progress to severe disease. Conversely, although fewer older adults were infected with H1N1, this group was much more likely to experience severe disease. Therefore, should H1N1 infection incidence ever increase in older adults, for example by evolving to become more infectious to this group, average rates of severe disease per infection could be much higher than for the 2009 pandemic. Revised pandemic preparedness plans should include prospective serological cohort studies, such as this one, in order to be able to estimate rates of severe disease per infection.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000442.
WHO has information about the global response to the 2009 H1N1 pandemic
WHO also provides recommendations for the H1N1 post-pandemic period
The government of Hong Kong's Centre for Health Protection provides information about H1N1 in Hong Kong