Two zoonotic influenza A viruses (IAV) of global concern, H5N1 and H7N9, exhibit unexplained differences in age distribution of human cases. Using data from all known human cases of these viruses, we show that an individual's first IAV infection confers lifelong protection against severe disease from novel hemagglutinin (HA) subtypes in the same phylogenetic group. Statistical modeling shows that protective HA imprinting is the crucial explanatory factor, and it provides 75% protection against severe infection and 80% protection against death for both H5N1 and H7N9. Our results enable us to predict age distributions of severe disease for future pandemics and demonstrate that a novel strain's pandemic potential increases yearly when a group-mismatched HA subtype dominates seasonal influenza circulation. These findings open new frontiers for rational pandemic risk assessment.
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