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Figuring How to Terrify Us Over Swine Flu

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

“U.S. health officials say swine flu could strike up to 40 percent of Americans over the next two years and as many as several hundred thousand could die.” So declares an Associated Press article, the writer of which you can picture trying to catch his breath as he pounds away at the keyboard. In its exclusive revelation of unpublished figures, AP says “Those estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) mean about twice the number of people who usually get sick in a normal flu season would be struck by swine flu.”


No they don’t. The CDC’s influenza website shows they’re essentially the same.

Welcome to the wonderful world of swine flu hysteria, in which health agencies – be it the World Health Organization (which declared a worldwide pandemic with just 244 deaths) or the CDC – can tell any scary story they want with the assurance that the mainstream media will never challenge them. That includes pointing to a piglet and proclaiming it to be a wild, raging boar.

It seems that to ask a journalist at the nation’s largest wire service to merely spend a few minutes on a single website or even to simply ponder what he’s just typed is to ask too much.

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Thus, the CDC’s influenza website states that “on average 5 percent to 20 percent of the population” contracts flu each year which, save for the hapless souls who contract it two seasons in a row, would be the same as “up to 40 percent of Americans over the next two years.”

Yet AP’s writer, still on that adrenaline rush, declares that while “in a normal flu season, about 36,000 people die,” that “because so many more people are expected to catch the new flu, the number of deaths over two years could range from 90,000 to several hundred thousand, the CDC calculated."

Really? Let’s do our own calculations.

Five to 20 percent of the U.S. population comes out to 15 to 60 million people. The CDC actually provides those figures, thereby sparing the arithmetically-challenged. Swine flu has infected "more than 1 million Americans, the CDC believes,” AP informs us, with “302 deaths."


Now just keep that calculator holstered for a minute, pilgrim! Do 302 swine flu deaths out of “more than 1 million infections,” given what we now know about seasonal flu deaths, seem alarming?

Okay, now grab the calculator and divide those “more than 1 million infections” into the 302 deaths. The fatality rate is less than 0.03%.

How much less? The CDC first used the “one million” figure over a month ago. Either there have been a lot of new infections in that time, meaning the death rate has indeed fallen well below 0.003%, or else there have not been – which is also good news.

But let’s be sporting and use an even million.

Dividing “15 to 60 million infections” into 36,000 deaths provides a seasonal flu death rate ranging from 0.006% to 0.024%. That’s twice to eight times the swine flu death rate.

Are you still getting out the plastic sheeting and duct tape?

Ah, but AP has another explanation for the potentially high toll. It’s if “a new vaccine and other efforts fail.”

Far more likely than an outright failure would be what’s called a “mismatch.” That means the vaccine gives only partial coverage. Still, some of those vaccinated would not become infected and therefore neither die nor infect others, who in turn would neither die nor infect others. So even a mismatch could considerably lower deaths.

Moreover, lest we forget in our haste to produce front-page material, there’s no swine flu vaccine now. Will a “failed” vaccine somehow make swine flu more lethal?


Conclusion: The CDC is playing the same games it did with heterosexual AIDS, SARS,and avian flu – promoting panic far out of proportion to the problem. I wrote exposes on each of those scares at the time. The “secret?” Checking sources, putting facts before fear mongering, and keeping a sense of perspective – right next to the calculator.

Why the CDC promotes such hysteria is another story. But safe to say that among the reasons are that it knows the media have little interest in the fairy tale called “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”

For the American public, that’s very unhealthy indeed.

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