Scare-tistics and swine-fluence

Throughout the weekend, and now into Monday, CNN seems to have been turned into the influenza network, as “breaking” headlines highlighted soaring, leaping, and rising numbers of people with swine flu. But did banner breaking news headlines really tell us anything meaningful? A sixty five percent increase in cases sounds scary, but not when it refers to going from 331 to a grand total of 615 people across 15 countries. Using percentages like this creates a heightened sense of alarm, which – in tandem with the tens of thousands of news stories covering the story from every conceivable doomsday scenario – is driving people to seek out medical attention for every sniffle. Here’s a sampling of flu inflation from CNN:

Confirmed cases of H1N1 virus approach 1,000 – updated 4:12 a.m. EDT, Mon May 4, 2009
“The World Health Organization cautioned that the swine flu outbreak could gain momentum in the months ahead, despite claims by the health secretary of Mexico — the epicenter of the outbreak — that the virus “is in its declining phase.”

Confirmed cases of H1N1 virus approach 900updated 5:59 p.m. EDT, Sun May 3, 2009
“The World Health Organization cautioned that the swine flu outbreak could gain momentum in the months ahead, despite claims by the health secretary of Mexico — the epicenter of the outbreak — that the virus “is in its declining phase. “The number of confimed cases of the H1N1 virus continue to multiply. The outbreak is only about 10 days old, and even if the illness is declining, it could return, said Gregory Hartl, the WHO spokesman for epidemic and pandemic diseases, at a briefing Sunday.”

Swine flu count tops 800 – Posted: 02:09 PM ET, May 3rd, 2009
‘The number of known swine flu cases worldwide topped 800 on Sunday, with another 66 cases confirmed in the United States, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

CNN Saturday morning news, aired May 2, 2009 – 06:00   ET
“Overnight, there is a big jump in the number of swine-flu cases worldwide. The World Health Organization reports 615 people infected in 15 countries. That is a 67 percent increase from the number reported just yesterday.”

Number of swine flu cases soars – CNN Wire, Saturday, May 2, 2009, Posted: 05:33 AM ET
“Cases of people infected with the H1N1 virus soared Saturday with the World Health Organization reporting 615 people in 15 countries infected with the virus commonly known as swine flu.”

Confirmed number of global swine flu cases: 367 and counting – updated 10:09 p.m. EDT, Fri May 1, 2009
The number of confirmed swine flu cases across the globe kept rising Friday, but some signs of hope emerged in the battle against the worldwide outbreak.

Worldwide swine flu cases continue to rise – updated 11:45 a.m. EDT, Fri May 1, 2009
“The number of confirmed cases of the H1N1 virus has jumped nearly 30 percent with 331 people being infected so far, the World Health Organization said Friday.”

Confirmed swine flu cases leap – updated 10:44 p.m. EDT, Thu April 30, 2009
“Confirmed cases of swine flu worldwide increased to 257 on Thursday, up significantly from the previous day’s total of 147, the World Health Organization reported.”

Worldwide swine flu cases continue to rise – updated 9:11 a.m. EDT, Thu April 30, 2009
“The number of confirmed swine flu cases worldwide rose to 154, with six additional cases reported in Spain, the World Health Organization said Thursday. Until now, the country had four confirmed cases.”

(Blessedly, CNN did not report this as a 250 percent increase)

This doesn’t include stories about wild boars being killed, Dr Sanjay Gupta advising people to rub elbows instead of kissing or shaking hands, interviews with “survivors” of the 1918 flu pandemic, and a story about how a farmer might have given flu to his pigs in Canada. CNN did wonder whether it was overdoing it and decided to investigate the issue by turning to Ron Paul for insight:

“There is too much hysteria in the country and so far, there hasn’t been that great a danger,” said Congressman Ron Paul, a Republican from Texas. “It’s overblown, grossly so.”

The online article failed to note that Paul was a trained doctor.  Dr. Mark Bell, principal of Emergent Medical Associates, which operates 18 emergency departments in Southern California was also deeply critical:

“Right now, people think if they have a cough or a cold, they’re going to die. That’s a scary, frightening place to be in. I wish that this hysteria had not occurred and that we had tempered a little bit of our opinions and thoughts and fears in the media.”

But there is hope: As the absence of virulent death becomes ever-more obvious in the data, the media, says Gawker, are growing bored with being swine hounds.

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2 Responses to Scare-tistics and swine-fluence

  1. Michael says:

    Why is it that the report looks sort of biased? Why would one think that an ER doc would have more insight to influenza, than a primary care doctor, like Dr Paul? (That is what OB/Gyne doctors are considered in this country.) And is it now appropriate to run to an ER if you have flu symptoms? More failure of the media to understand the little nuances of medical care, maybe? It really appears to be a media driven hysteria, as suggested by both of the above medical experts! Is it going to get to the point that the people are going to see the MSM, and other media, as crying “wolf!” once too often?

  2. Jay Weiser, Assoc. Professor of Law & Real Estate, Baruch College says:

    If you’re seeing a 67% increase in a day, and large percentage jumps are occurring each day or week, that’s cause for concern and worth reporting, since pandemics often grow exponentially in the early stages. This was the case with AIDS, where reported cases, starting from a very low base, were doubling almost every week from 1981-82, or maybe even longer.

    The problem is context: a rapid increase in cases does not mean that the illness is especially dangerous. AIDS was; thus far it doesn’t appear that swine flu is. CNN, if it’s doing its job, should inform viewers of the spreading pandemic but emphasize that, despite the initial alarming wave of deaths in Mexico, in the US, so far it’s no worse than a seasonal flu.

    If a pandemic is spreading and the severity of the illness is unclear, you should praise rather than mock reasonable precaution. Dr. Sanjay Gupta was right to advise people to rub elbows instead of kissing or shaking hands, because a primary means of transmittal for respiratory viruses is mouth-to-mouth or mouth-to-hand-to-hand-to-mouth. Reducing that unnecessary contact reduces transmission and can slow or even stop the spread of the pandemic. Dr. Gupta’s advice would be appropriate even during a pandemic of an ordinary seasonal flu.

    Insane reactions — such as shooting wild boars, slaughtering all the pigs in Egypt, or Sen. Joe Lieberman’s statement that, even though he doesn’t understand the science, we should consider closing the border with Mexico even though the virus is already widespread in the US — need to be reported, debunked and derided.

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