One More Reason to Wonder About the CDC


[The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)] states that the historic 1968-9 "Hong Kong flu" pandemic killed 34,000 Americans. At the same time, CDC claims 36,000 Americans annually die from flu. What is going on?

That's what Harvard grad-student researcher Peter Doshi asks in the latest issue of BMJ. His answer is that CDC stats related to flu are "a mess" because the agency 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.

Prior to 2003, CDC used to estimate about 20,000 flu-associated deaths a year. Then it started claiming 36,000 for unconvincing reasons. All while folks are losing interest in getting flu vaccine shots. The piece is an interesting window onto how lame many health stats are, even or especially when they have policy ramifications (such as the gov't pushing flu shots and reimbursing drug companies for unused stock). Whole thing here.

Other reasons to wonder about the CDC include this, this, and this.