Sunday, July 26, 2009

On reporting about swine and seasonal flu

I'm on a jag about flu.

We'll urge people to get their flu shots, of course. But the question that's always bugged me is, how can 30,000 Americans die a year and I haven't even heard about one, much less known one -- especially after all my years? Now, they're saying 40 percent of us will get, if not be killed by, swine flu.

As I've written before, I regularly challenge the state health department about their reporting of deaths. Last year, they reported that in one month alone, 19 New Mexicans had died from flu and pneumonia complications. I asked: "How many died of flu by itself?" "A couple," they replied. Why lump the numbers together? To make them more compelling?

The CDC says seasonal flu hits the young and the elderly the most. Even the CDC, and the state health department, will admit it's difficult to define the precise cause of death in the very young and the very old, two population groups susceptible to pneumonia, to which flu is just one contributor, but not the only one.

So I raced to the phone several years ago when I ran across a paper by a CDC research published in the New England Journal of Medicine (one of the most respected medical-research journals anywhere). The editors don't publish garbage.

The paper reported on a huge effort by CDC to get health departments in a dozen states to step up their efforts to separate actual flu deaths from all others, then count the number of young people (0 to 18) who actually died of flu. The number was 143. Remember, this is one of two most susceptible age groups.

Extrapolate the numbers anyway you wish. It's nigh impossible to arrive at 30,000 total deaths with such a low rate among one of the two groups most likely to die of seasonal flu.

You watch for it -- the media will dutifully report this fall that more than 30,000 Americans die each year of flu.

KSFR News may say that, as well. We can't disprove it.

But neither can they prove it.

I'll remain healthfully skeptical.

No hysteria, please

Ambulance chasing, aircraft crashes, swine flu...

We don't do hysteria at KSFR News. At least we try not to. In fact, I think we may go out of way to avoid the news items that seem to want to lead to hysteria.

When the four teens from Santa Fe were killed in a head-on collision. We didn't air the tape of the 911 call.

When the state police helicopter crashed in the mountains above Santa Fe, I thought about asking state police for the taped communications between base and copter. But I chose not to. When other outlets put the audio on their websites, morbid curiosity led me to go there and listen to them (maybe to get a new angle to cover the story?). But KSFR did not air them.

There's enough anguish in the actual fact of those types of events that would not be better served by repeating raw, emotional details -- at least not for us.

So, what about swine flu?

Each year when flu season comes along, I grit my teeth that even talking about it and promoting the fact that the flu shots are ready will add to hysteria. Of course, we'll urge people to get their flu shots. But I'll do it while also asking the question, do 30,000 Americans really did from flu each year? I've never known or heard of one. So, I challenge the state health department about their numbers all the time. Last year, they reported that in one month alone, 19 New Mexicans had died from flu and pneumonia complications. I asked: "How many did of flu by itself?" "A couple," they replied. Why lump the numbers together? To make them more compelling?

Now, we're confronted by not one but two types of flu. Will swine flu be more deadly? The hype makes it sound that way. Who will be more susceptible to it, the young and elderly or somewhere in the middle. The early evidence suggests it will be those somewhere in the middle.

And how many will die? It's always seemed like 30,000 Americans falling to seasonal flu each year is a lot, although I spoke with a statistician recently who says for a population our size, it's not many at all. If it's not many at all, why the hysteria? Many times more people die in auto crashes.

Yes, we'll report about swine flu. I'll even see how the state's emergency preparedness people are getting ready.

I just hope that whatever we report on KSFR News will contribute to education, not to hysteria.

Robin Lustig of BBC news has these thoughts about swine flu on his blog.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

G'bye, Walter

I've read the tributes to Walter Cronkite but they can't surpass my own memories.

As for where news was and is now, Ted Williams of Associated Press sums it up nicely.

"At the end of last year, according to Gallup, 31 percent of Americans considered the Internet to be a daily news source, a 50 percent gain since 2006. That's almost 100 million people actively reaching out to get their news rather than flipping on the TV and waiting for it to come to them.

"Nightly American comfort, Cronkite style, is a thing of the past, if it ever really existed at all. Perhaps, in the Age of Many Voices, comfort and reassurance is not meant to be our lot. Maybe that's just the way it is."