Coughing up bacon (or Why the Swine Flu won’t kill you just yet)

Last week, while friends and I were discussing the sensationalistic news coverage of the swine flu pandemic, I was joking that if you were not coughing up bacon, you were probably OK.


I fact, I wasn’t so much joking about the flu itself than about how (dis)information is presented in sensationalist news channels such CNN, Fox, or even Montréal-based LCN. Earlier this week, news were that the flu had already caused tens, maybe hundreds, of deaths, but that data was presented as if, you know, you just catch the swine flu and you die right away from it. However, on Thursday morning, on the radio, I heard that the Mexican authorities recounted “swine flu” death to… less than ten. To really understand what’s going on, you really have to do some research, and sometimes what you discover is radically different from what you’ve been told.

After a tiny bit of digging, I found the following from the authorities. The last (at the time of writing) report from the WHO reads as follows:

3 May 2009 — As of 1600 GMT, 3 May 2009, 18 countries have officially reported 898 cases of influenza A(H1N1) infection.

Mexico has reported 506 confirmed human cases of infection, including 19 deaths. The higher number of cases from Mexico in the past 48 hours reflects ongoing testing of previously collected specimens. The United States Government has reported 226 laboratory confirmed human cases, including one death.

The following countries have reported laboratory confirmed cases with no deaths – Austria (1), Canada (85), China, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (1), Costa Rica (1), Denmark (1), France (2), Germany (8), Ireland (1), Israel (3), Italy (1), Netherlands (1), New Zealand (4), Republic of Korea (1), Spain (40), Switzerland (1) and the United Kingdom (15). [source].

Seasonal influenza kills something like 36000 people in the United States alone each year, mostly indirectly, resulting from flu-related complications [source]. So, while one should remain cautious about the new flu, one should also consider that it is still somewhat globally benign.

* *

So every time you hear numbers, statistics, and their interpretation, you should try to find the original data—whether it’s epidemiological or some other experimental data—and question the breakdown, the methodology, the interpretation and the intent as well. It is well known that one can make data say anything, especially if using statistics!

Suggested Readings

Darrell Huff — How to Lie with Statistics — W. W. Norton & Co, 1993

Joel Best — Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists — University of California Press, 2001

4 Responses to Coughing up bacon (or Why the Swine Flu won’t kill you just yet)

  1. Cesar Coll Alfeiran says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I live in Mexico and it’s just nuts what the authorities are doing. They have closed restauranst, movie theaters. A lot of small businesses have closed their doors. People are TERRIFIED to go outside. They might be saving a handful of lifes, but at a HUGE economical price, which in turn will mean lower income and lower health, and ultimately more deaths.

    People: Please, read the 2 books suggested above. Humand Kind is in desperate need competent authorities that can understand statistics.

    • Steven Pigeon says:

      Well, human lives should always prevail over economy, and if there are a few intelligent precautions to be taken to prevent the spread of the disease, they should be taken, especially while we don’t know that type of virus or what it is capable of.

      That’s not to say that every one should panic and hide in a hole somewhere. I live “up north” and we get the flu at least twice every winter, and, of course, a whole lot of already sick people die from it, but generally, it’s quite benign.

      We all die some day, that’s life.

      • Cesar Coll Alfeirán says:

        People often say that You can’t put a price on a human life. That’s FALSE.

        A human life is worth exactly 1 Human life. And more people die of untreated health problems when the economy is down. So, all I’m saying is that you have to take into account the direct lives you save and the indirect lives you take when making a political desition.

  2. […] is specially obvious lately with the swine flu scare, but as my friend Steven said, and as I will repeat below, we are not coughing up bacon […]

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