Outrageous! 50 dead in flu plague

For my post today, I was going to write about a recent project to create a Crokinole board. This will now have to wait until next week as I just had to put across my views of an outrageous story I came across today. It is not the story itself that I find most disturbing however (although it is always regretful when even just one person dies of flu), but the way it has been reported by the Daily Express.

For those of you not aware of the British print media, tabloids such as the Daily Express, the Daily Mail and The Sun have a bit of a reputation for bad journalism. Of particular concern to me are the ways in which these papers mislead, twist facts and blatantly lie in order to push their own agendas. There are a number of excellent websites such as Tabloid Watch that try to expose examples of poor and often dangerous reporting.

The article concerned is given particular prominence; being both on the front page of the newspaper and, at the time of writing, the lead story on the website. For starters, the use of the word ‘Plague’ in the headline immediately conjours up images of epidemics of biblical proportions. This is contradictory to the relatively small number of deaths quoted in that very same headline. To put the numbers into some kind of perspective, around 3,000 – 4,000 deaths are attributed to flu every year. Indeed, in extreme years such as 1989-1990, this can rise to over 20,000. These numbers are themselves just a small proportion of the total number of deaths each year. Last year, the Health Protection Agency reported that there were over 300,000 deaths in the UK.

So despite the fact that the current mortality rate is considerably down on previous years, the Express tries to exaggerate the extent of the problem through the use of emotive and hard-hitting language. In isolation, 50 deaths may seem considerable. Whilst any death is obviously one too many for those involved, the simple fact is that current trends can not be described as irregular, let alone as a ‘flu plague’.

The article stresses:

Almost one in three of the victims was perfectly healthy with no underlying symptoms before they fell ill.

However, as can be seen from the graph below (adapted from a report by the Health Protection Agency), the incidence of mortality from H1N1 (swine flu), to which younger and more healthy people are more susceptible, has also declined. At its peak, H1N1 was causing nearly as many deaths in a single week as the number of deaths the Express says have occurred due to all forms of flu since October.

The article continues:

Increasing public alarm at the scale of the epidemic has prompted a growing number of people to demand the seasonal flu jab from their doctor.

An herein, in my opinion, lies the problem with the article. The ‘increasing alarm’ and growing demand for the flu jab is surely perpetuated by this kind of misleading article. What has been reported by the Express, strictly speaking (in terms of numbers), is not untrue. However, the facts given have been presented in such a way as to try to provide readers with a particular conclusion.

update: For further reading on putting numbers in context, see Ben Goldacre’s excellent article on recent reporting of a contraceptive implant.

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4 thoughts on “Outrageous! 50 dead in flu plague

  1. Good for you, Michael. We have a number of trashy newspapers in North America, too, that do exactly what you describe, up to and including downright lying to attract readers to their questionable “reports.” As a former journalist, I decry the use of sensationalism to sell newspapers. The general populace has enough things to make them nervous…they don’t need an inaccurate slant on the facts to make them more afraid.

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