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Estimates of the reproduction number for seasonal, pandemic, and zoonotic influenza: a systematic review of the literature

Matthew Biggerstaff1*, Simon Cauchemez2, Carrie Reed1, Manoj Gambhir3 and Lyn Finelli1

Author Affiliations

1 Epidemiology and Prevention Branch, Influenza Division, National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1600 Clifton Road NE MS A-32, Atlanta 30333, Georgia

2 Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases Unit, Institut Pasteur, Paris, France

3 National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, CDC, Atlanta, Georgia

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BMC Infectious Diseases 2014, 14:480  doi:10.1186/1471-2334-14-480

Published: 4 September 2014



The potential impact of an influenza pandemic can be assessed by calculating a set of transmissibility parameters, the most important being the reproduction number (R), which is defined as the average number of secondary cases generated per typical infectious case.


We conducted a systematic review to summarize published estimates of R for pandemic or seasonal influenza and for novel influenza viruses (e.g. H5N1). We retained and summarized papers that estimated R for pandemic or seasonal influenza or for human infections with novel influenza viruses.


The search yielded 567 papers. Ninety-one papers were retained, and an additional twenty papers were identified from the references of the retained papers. Twenty-four studies reported 51 R values for the 1918 pandemic. The median R value for 1918 was 1.80 (interquartile range [IQR]: 1.47–2.27). Six studies reported seven 1957 pandemic R values. The median R value for 1957 was 1.65 (IQR: 1.53–1.70). Four studies reported seven 1968 pandemic R values. The median R value for 1968 was 1.80 (IQR: 1.56–1.85). Fifty-seven studies reported 78 2009 pandemic R values. The median R value for 2009 was 1.46 (IQR: 1.30–1.70) and was similar across the two waves of illness: 1.46 for the first wave and 1.48 for the second wave. Twenty-four studies reported 47 seasonal epidemic R values. The median R value for seasonal influenza was 1.28 (IQR: 1.19–1.37). Four studies reported six novel influenza R values. Four out of six R values were <1.


These R values represent the difference between epidemics that are controllable and cause moderate illness and those causing a significant number of illnesses and requiring intensive mitigation strategies to control. Continued monitoring of R during seasonal and novel influenza outbreaks is needed to document its variation before the next pandemic.

Reproductive number; Influenza; Pandemics; Zoonotic influenza