Thursday, November 12, 2009

The CDC and H1N1: What if We Threw a Panic and Nobody Came?

The Centers for Disease Control is out with its weekly update on the H1N1 pandemic, and that means it's time for another round of alarmist headlines from our friends in the mainstream media:
Here's the headline you are not seeing, but should:
H1N1 on Pace to Kill Far Fewer People Than Typical Seasonal Flu

So, here's what happened today. The CDC reported its statistical estimate of how many people have been infected with novel influenza A H1N1 in the United States in the 6 months since the first cases emerged last spring. Up until now, they have reported confirmed cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. Today they used the very same formulae that they use every year to figure out how many people have the flu, and came up with an estimate of 22 million cases of H1N1 and 3,900 deaths over the last 6 months. They also reported that the percentage of visits to doctors for influenza-like illnesses is now the highest it has been since they started counting back in 1997.

There are two angles from which you can look at these numbers. The first, and the one that the media seems to have jumped at, is that these numbers are significantly higher than what has been reported previously. In fact, this death toll is about quadruple the last death toll number that was announced. That makes it appear that H1N1 is much, much worse than anyone suspected before, and that's news. What's more, more people are going to the doctor than ever before for flu-like illnesses. H1N1 is making quite an impression out there.

The other angle from which you could view today's numbers is to consider exactly what it is that is being reported here, and how it compares to similar numbers we know about. Under this analysis, you are definitely still left with a very large number of doctors' visits for the flu. It isn't clear at all whether that means more people are actually sick or whether when people get sick they are more likely to go to the doctor this time around, but it does seem like the flu is a real problem out there. 22 million people have gotten H1N1. That's less than 10% of the population, which really isn't all that many people as these things go, although I haven't been able to find a decent number on how many people get the flu in an average year.

Furthermore, 3,900 people have died. And while that is 3,900 tragedies, it is also about 11% of the annual death toll from seasonal flu. In order for H1N1 to kill anywhere near the number seasonal flu does each year, more than 5,000 people are going to have to die every month from now through April. Oh, and the death toll didn't triple -- this is a totally different statistic than the previous reports. This is an estimate of the total. The lower numbers were the actual number they had counted.

So yes, you can look at the numbers and say they are much worse than anything we've heard before, or you can look at them and say they are much, much, much better than we feared. In fact, the thing that makes this flu season bad is not any of these numbers at all, but the fact that so many younger people are getting sick and even dying. But while we need to take H1N1 seriously and try to prevent its spread as best we can, I'm kind of wondering at what point the media and, to a lesser extent, the CDC will wake up to the fact that this just isn't the horrible crisis that was predicted. At what point will the evidence outweigh the need to have been right and to continue the high alert? Whenever that point is, it obviously isn't now.


Colleen said...

I heard a headline report today that appeared to say that the number of deaths was quadruple the estimated number! I KNEW at the time that that was nonsense, but that is what I heard the headline to be. I really really hope I misheard, and that no one else misheard it the same way.....because I bet people are believing it!

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