A Very Unscientific Swine Flu Coverage Analysis

You can’t get this kind of post-cereal, pre-shower analysis just anywhere, folks!

Anyhow, one of my favorite Twitterers is U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). I have found it very refreshing to get a first-hand look at what it’s like to be a senator, and I find her observations (all 140 chars. of them, admittedly) to be useful and refreshing. It’s kind of a shame, though, that the first place I heard a very important statistic was in her tweet:

Sec Napolitano & CDC briefed us at lunch re Swine flu. Amazd to find out we’ve36,000 deaths &200,000 hospitalzed a year in USA from reg flu.

Yup, 36,000. That’s a lot of people. No wonder they do flu vaccine pushes every fall.

I did a very cursory Google Reader search for “swine flu” and 36,000, and just over 1,800 stories come up. For “swine flu” alone? More than 103,000. That’s potentially less than one and a half percent of articles placing the situation in proper, CDC-sourced statistical context. Again, that’s a very blanket, unscientific glimpse at the coverage, but still–it gives a sense. While swine flu is blamed for about 150 deaths in Mexico since the outbreak began, 13,000 have been killed by the flu in the US this calendar year alone.

No fewer than 800 flu-related deaths were reported in any week between January 1 and April 18, the most recent week for which figures were available.

Let me quickly follow this up by saying that a somewhat assuaging statistic is not an excuse for letting down our guard. I’m not at all saying, “eh, ignore it, it will blow over” — this outbreak is concerning because it is a hybrid strain we cannot yet control, and it has affected otherwise young, health individuals (the vast majority of deaths from typical flu strains affect people over the age of 65) — but rather than alarming people, let’s just keep them informed and alert. There’s still a lot we don’t know, such as, why do early indications show the American strain as being less serious and fatal than the Mexican strain? We can’t be complacent — the reasons for this difference are still unknown, and there’s no taking comfort in a lack of knowledge. We also can’t politicize this matter. Sure, the removal of nearly $1 billion in pandemic preparedness funding from the stimulus package is cause for concern, but that is still a separate matter from the actual outbreak and measures being taken in relation to it — to politicize the response is to obfuscate the issue at hand. Right now, the CDC and the WHO have to do their jobs, citizens have to be informed and vigilant, and in the meantime, the media needs to report responsibly.

Of course, this morning, the first American death from swine flu is in the news. It’s tragic — a 23-month old from Texas — but again, context is key. It’s up to the reporters covering this story to keep us informed of that context, and to let us know when the sharp deviations start to emerge — that will be the real cause for concern.

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