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Are US flu death figures more PR than science?

BMJ 2005; 331 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.331.7529.1412 (Published 8 December 2005)
Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:1412

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  1. Peter Doshi (pdoshi@fas.harvard.edu), graduate student
  1. Harvard University

    US data on influenza deaths are a mess. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) acknowledges a difference between flu death and flu associated death yet uses the terms interchangeably. Additionally, there are significant statistical incompatibilities between official estimates and national vital statistics data. Compounding these problems is a marketing of fear—a CDC communications strategy in which medical experts “predict dire outcomes” during flu seasons.

    The CDC website states what has become commonly accepted and widely reported in the lay and scientific press: annually “about 36 000 [Americans] die from flu” (www.cdc.gov/flu/about/disease.htm) and “influenza/pneumonia” is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States (www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/lcod.htm). But why are flu and pneumonia bundled together? Is the relationship so strong or unique to warrant characterising them as a single cause of death?

    David Rosenthal, director of Harvard University Health Services, said, “People don't necessarily die, per se, of the [flu] virus—the viraemia. What they die of is a secondary pneumonia. So many of these pneumonias are not viral pneumonias but secondary [pneumonias].” But Dr Rosenthal agreed that the flu/pneumonia relationship was not unique. For instance, a recent study (JAMA 2004;292: 1955-60) found that stomach acid suppressing drugs are associated with a higher risk of community …

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