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The Epidemic That Wasn't

Flu facts vs. media hype

By the time the media was done mangling the story, hundreds of thousands of panicked parents and elderly had spent hours in line at health clinics here and across the country. In North Carolina, they jammed doctors' offices at 10 times the normal flu season rate, dragging sniffling children behind them, terrified that the colds they normally let pass without the hassle of a doctor's visit might be the "killer" flu strain.

Headlines across the nation screaming about the flu "outbreak" were full of phrases like "severe," "deadly," "worst in decades," "panicked parents," and my personal favorite, "World ill-prepared for flu pandemic." Missing from the hundreds of flu articles I scanned were the most crucial details of the story -- the ones that wouldn't have supported those headlines.

The whole thing started with a fairly innocuous press release the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) put out on Nov. 17, which must have been a slow news day. In the release, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson cautioned that, "Early indications are that we may be in for a more severe season than in the previous three years."

In most news stories that followed, the "may" and "in the three previous years" parts of the sentence were chopped off. Reporters also neglected to point out that "the three previous years" were fairly mild flu seasons, which would have put the situation in perspective. By the end of November, the story had grown to such outrageous proportions that news and television reports were predicting the worst flu season in decades, a pandemic that could cause over 70,000 deaths, twice the usual number.

So far, it hasn't happened. In fact, as of this week, the nation is still trailing the number of deaths in the 2000 flu season. (The CDC tracks suspected adult deaths in 122 cities to estimate the national death total.)

In North Carolina, nine children have died of the flu this season, certainly a tragedy, but one that puts us right on track for a typical flu year in which it's believed that 12 to 15 die, on average.

North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Spokesperson Debbie Crane describes the season as a "moderate" one for the "B" strain of the flu the papers described as so deadly.

So what happened in newsrooms in those two weeks in November that blew the flu story completely out of proportion?

The real panic started on Nov. 25, when the Associated Press reported that there were four child deaths in Colorado from the flu and that the flu was widespread in Texas as well. The Colorado deaths occurred earlier in the flu season than had previously been seen. Since only two to four kids usually die from the flu in an entire typical season in Colorado, panic set it, and local papers across the country simply lifted the information about the child deaths and the supposed Western flu outbreak from national articles and worked it into their own coverage without questioning it -- while speculating that the flu "epidemic" could spread to other states.

What wasn't reported is that Texas doesn't track the number of visits to health facilities by people who show signs of flu; the "widespread" designation Texas uses is only anecdotal. Also unreported was the fact that Colorado is ranked 50th among states for its poor flu preparedness and vaccination record.

But the most important fact that didn't find its way into most news reports is that this is the first year the CDC has mandated the reporting of child deaths from the flu. That means a test must now be performed to confirm that children who are believed to have died of the flu -- who often are also suffering complications from pneumonia or other illnesses -- actually had influenza. So comparing the number of child deaths this year to the number in previous years, when state health authorities may or may not have heard about them and when the deaths they heard about may or may not have been caused by the flu is practically useless.

Health officials I spoke to in four states, including North Carolina, cautioned me about making child death comparisons between this year and last year. I assume they must have cautioned other reporters as well, but that detail didn't make the cut in a single one of the articles I read.

Most news outlets also reported that the flu had reached "epidemic" levels without pointing out that the CDC's epidemic threshold is so low that the flu reaches epidemic status nearly every year.

What was reported was that visits to the doctor by folks complaining of a temperature and a cough were up by five to 10 times their normal number. Given the media-induced panic, it's not surprising that more folks with runny noses went to the doctor, but it's hardly proof of an "outbreak," especially when the number of deaths didn't follow the spike in doctor visits.

It was a great story for a while, though. Of course it would have been even better had it been true.

Contact Tara Servatius at

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