Whether it’s the swine flu or the normal flu, there sure is a lot of talk about flus these days. There are signs up all over on my way to work advertising vaccinations, and they offer free vaccinations at my office.
Oddly, though, I don’t know anyone with the flu right now. Also, those I know who have had the flu over the past few years didn’t seem very close to death; they experience more of a “long cold” type of sickness.
There are some scary statistics out there, though. The CDC claims 36,000 Americans die from “flu-related causes” every year. I think this makes everyone (at least initially) ask the same questions: Am I in danger of dying from the flu if I don’t take the necessary precautions? Do I need to get a vaccine? Does my family?
It turns out there are other questions that need to be asked about the CDC’s claims, too—like, “How are flu-related causes different from plain-old flu causes?” and “Where is the CDC getting it’s numbers?”
My brother sent me the full version of an article in BMJ entitled, Are US flu death figures more PR than science? (registration required). It’s a couple years old, but the author presents three main criticisms:
- The CDC’s way of forming a “unique relationship” between flu and pneumonia when citing cause of death statistics is questionable.
- The CDC’s estimated 80% increase in influenza-associated deaths isn’t consistent with the 30% decrease in recorded flu deaths (over the same period).
- The CDC misrepresents estimated influenza-associated deaths as, simply, “flu deaths.”
The comments on the article are particularly interesting, as the author and a number of other scientists go back and forth with some of the very organizations they criticize.
For example, in the first comment, Germany is said to have the same issue: The Robert-Koch-Institut (RKI, Germany’s equivalent of the CDC) cited 15,000-20,000 deaths due to influenza (viral flu) in the winter of 2004. But… Germany’s Federal Statistical Office says there were only “9 deaths caused by viral flu (influenza) (2003: 25; 2002: 10; 2001: 9), and 116 deaths caused by flus where viruses have not been found.” Hospitals in Germany have different numbers (this time for 2003), too: 12 influenza deaths and 165 flu (without virus proof) deaths. Later in the comments, RKI posts a response where they discusses statistical modelling used to find “hidden” cases of flu-related deaths.
Further comments also call the RKI (and sympathetic posters) out on not providing proof that flu viruses exist and are lethal, confusing correlation with causation, not considering that “upper respiratory tract infections (if they are even infections at all) could have a non-infectious underlying cause,” and not addressing the low effectiveness of flu vaccines.
The last comment was made in 2006, so it’s possible these concerns have been addressed. If they have, I certainly haven’t heard about it—and, in the end, I guess that’s the main problem.
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