That's because, he says, the deaths attributed to swine flu both now and in the future will reflect the rule that "the more you look, the more you find."
Understand first that neither the seasonal nor the swine flu death figures are supposed to represent total numbers, but rather what the CDC surveillance system nets. Causes of death are determined not by computers but by human beings who are sensitive to what Chin calls "media hype."
True, to be labeled a swine flu fatality you have to have the virus. But after that it gets tricky. According to the CDC, "Many millions" of Americans have been symptomatic with swine flu and, therefore, says Chin, many people "will be dying of any number of things but just happen to be infected."
The CDC says about 30% of the cases classified as swine flu fatalities had chronic medical conditions such as asthma, cerebral palsy, and muscular dystrophy. These could be contributing causes, but they can also kill on their own. The more swine flu is in the news, the more likely it will be listed as the primary cause of death.
Such a phenomenon, Chin says, occurred during the early 1980s media blitz over the tampon-related "toxic shock syndrome epidemic." According to Chin, "Every time there was a headline, toxic shock cases shot up. It turns out it was occurring in small numbers. It was blown out of proportion." A later CDC analysis showed that through 1986 fewer than 200 women died, including those who never used tampons.
Chin says a bonafide apples-to-apples comparison might still show swine flu claiming more children's lives than does seasonal flu typically, but based on his observations "It still can't be that much more severe."
It's also necessary to view childhood flu deaths in perspective to all childhood deaths.
Annually, about 50,000 Americans perish before their 18th year. Unintentional injuries alone kill about 5,000 children below age 15, according to the National Safety Council. Of these, 1,100 are drownings and an additional 600 are from suffocation. These occur each year and yet could be prevented without quarantining Johnny or Jane at the South Pole.
Specifically regarding infectious diseases, there are probably few Americans who fear methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA – indeed many probably haven't heard of it. Yet each year it kills about 19,000 Americans, including an estimated 150 below the age of 18.
It's sad that public health officials seem to believe that getting people to do "the right thing" requires presenting a modern version of the Slaughter of the Innocents. It's also ironic in that surely some vaccination antipathy reflects the constant cries of "Wolf!" since the swine flu outbreak began.
There was the first declaration of a public health emergency in late April, with almost no U.S. deaths at the time. Then came the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology "plausible scenario" of 30,000 to 90,000 deaths with a "mid-October" peak. It came up rather short--though the latest CDC weekly FluView report may indeed indicate the peak of hospitalizations and deaths came in mid-October.
For that matter, consider five years of scary promulgations and headlines about avian flu such as "Flu Pandemic Could Kill 150 Million, U.N. Warns." Remember avian flu?
It's folly to think you can solve a problem caused partly by crying wolf simply by crying wolf even louder. That just squanders the credibility among public health officials--credibility which should be their most precious asset.
Michael Fumento is a, journalist, and attorney specializing in science and health issues as well as author of BioEvolution: How Biotechnology is Changing Our World .
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