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 comments: