Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Putting things in perspective (or trying, at least)

I came across this article from CNN on the current swine flu outbreak. Trying to contextualize the possibility of an influenza pandemic, the author wrote:
"In 1968, a 'Hong Kong' flu pandemic killed about 1 million people worldwide. And in 1918, a 'Spanish' flu pandemic killed as many as 100 million people. Putting those figures into perspective about 36,000 people die from flu-related symptoms each year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."
The first two numbers are world-wide totals, while the third figure is US-specific. Since the US has roughly 5% of the world's population, the yearly world death toll from the seasonal flu would be about 750,000. That would put it close to the 1968 Hong Kong flu and far below the Spanish flu. If you read the paragraph quickly, however you come away with the impression that the 1968 pandemic was significantly worse than the average flu season, while the 1918 pandemic was exponentially worse; in reality, only the latter is true.
Clearly, not all pandemics are equal, ranging from catastrophic to roughly equivalent to a seasonal flu. Either way, if you're going to provide context, it's good to put everything on the same scale.

No comments: