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Excess deaths: government commissions review

BMJ 2018; 361 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k2795 (Published 26 June 2018) Cite this as: BMJ 2018;361:k2795

Rapid Response:

Re: Government exaggerates flu mortality again: why cannot the public be trusted with the truth?

I note with interest Mr Stone's response to the article; 'Excess deaths: government commissions review' in which Stone highlights what he believes to be a gross exaggeration of the number of deaths attributable to flu during the 2017-2018 winter season: ‘So the government are now apparent not only blaming fluctuations in winter mortality on flu but all excess winter mortality on flu, to the tune of more than 50,000 deaths.’

Stone specifically, and accurately, quotes directly from the Public Health England (PHE) document, ‘Surveillance of influenza and other respiratory viruses in the UK: Winter 2017 to 2018’ , thus: ‘"Through the USISS mandatory scheme, a total of 3,454 ICU/HDU admissions of confirmed influenza were reported across the UK from week 40 2017 to week 15 2018, including 372 deaths, based on combined data from England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. In England, the total number of influenza confirmed admissions to ICU/HDU was 3,175 (rate of 0.22 per 100, 000 population) and 320 deaths during the same period... The cumulative number of cases and deaths were higher compared to the 2016 to 2017 season (992 cases (rate of 0.06) and 112 deaths) and to the 2015 to 2016 season (2,173 cases (rate of 0.14 per 100, 000) and 166 deaths) in England. This season represents the highest number and rate observed since the beginning of the scheme..."

Stone states: ‘On this basis, the number of deaths in England and Wales in an admittedly exceptionally bad year would have been only in the region of 335-340 deaths, and the ONS seem to have exaggerated the risk to the public by in the region of 150 times.’

It is regrettable that Stone only identified the deaths of patients admitted to ICU/HDU, and did not take into account that the PHE document also publishes total deaths, which were 15,969 (confidence interval 15,125-16,828) for the 2017-2018 season.. This total represents approximately 32% of the excess winter mortality for that season, and certainly not the much smaller sum that Stone claims.

Competing interests: No competing interests

24 May 2019
Nicola J Oliver
Longevity and Mortality Consultant
UK