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News flash: Swine flu is a massively overrated threat — overrated not only in the media but by the World Health Organization, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and others who have a duty to know better.
The presidential science council warned in late August that, "in a plausible scenario," swine flu might kill 90,000 Americans with the epidemic peaking in "mid-October." But a glance at the calendar indicates that’s rather unlikely.
Total deaths since Aug. 30 from "Influenza and Pneumonia-Associated" illness are 1,544, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site FluView. But only 240 of those have been laboratory-confirmed as flu of any type. (And yes, people die of pneumonia from many causes other than flu.) In fact, FluView reports that deaths from influenza and pneumonia are “at the epidemic threshold. ”
Repeat, there is no flu epidemic. There will be, quite possibly as soon as next week, but only because we have one every year.
The CDC no longer publishes specific data on swine-flu cases or deaths. But the FluTracker Web site does. As of last Friday, it listed 1,924 total US deaths compared to 680. That will prove to be a statistical artifact, with recorded numbers catching up to actual deaths.(There were just 36 deaths reported the previous week.) But it’s still well below the number the CDC estimates die weekly each year from "regular" flu during the season.
FluTracker also provides a graph that shows new worldwide cases and deaths — and that tells us deaths are no more frequent than they were a month ago.
New York City data indicate that swine flu is perhaps a tenth as lethal as the seasonal variety. Plus, government Web sites from such southern hemisphere countries such as Australia and New Zealand, whose flu season is now ending, show fewer flu deaths than normal. And the Swine Flu Count Website shows about 5,100 deaths worldwide in the last six months — about the number that die every six days from seasonal flu.
Note that, when it issued its "up to 90,000 deaths" report, the presidential council had ample access to the preliminary data from all these sources (and many more) showing the mildness of swine flu.
And the massive outbreak on college campuses you’ve been hearing about? The American College Health Association’s latest weekly survey at this writing shows new cases have dropped by 6 percent compared to the previous week, which in turn was down 19 percent from the week before. The “explosion ” has been imploding.
New Zealand’s official flu season has ended and almost all infections were swine flu. Yet deaths are about a tenth the number as during a normal year.
What we’re seeing isn’t a flu epidemic, but a "pandemic panic." Note how news reports repeatedly refer to people with "flu-like symptoms" – rather than people with confirmed flu cases.
FluView reports that only 27 percent of samples from the sentinel system of laboratories are testing positive for swine flu. Another way of looking at it is that only about a fourth of the samples that even doctors (much less scared patients) suspect may show swine flu do not show influenza of any type.
Another indicator of hysteria is that the percentage of visits to emergency rooms and outpatient clinics by people worried they have the flu — and worried enough to seek medical attention – is incredibly high: over 5 percent of all US emergency visits now. That’s the highest since February of last year, when the flu itself was actually peaking.
That is: Scared people are indeed swamping emergency rooms, and schools are closing. But it’s not flu-driven; it’s fear-driven. The media write article about panicky people, thereby creating more panicky people. Don’t let any physicist tell you there’s no such thing as a perpetual motion machine.
Bottom line: Don’t expect a presidential council to be interested in statistics, or the media to let facts get in the way of a sensational story. But if you want information instead of entertainment, just get the facts for yourself.