Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Plus or Minus 95%

I’ve been hearing the number 36,000 a lot lately.

I heard it on the radio during a “news update” on the pending swine flu pandemic. I read about it in a recent news story on the same topic.

36,000 is the number of annual U.S. deaths attributed to be caused by influenza.

It’s not the first time I’ve heard that number. Several months ago I was having a conversation with my mom and the topic of the flu – and the number of deaths from it per year – came up.

She asked me if I have ever known anyone who had died of the flu.

I admitted I hadn’t.

She asked me if I thought that was odd. She then told me that during the Vietnam War, just about everyone had some sort of personal acquaintance with a soldier who had died there. A relative, a friend, a friend’s son, a kid that went to your church, a classmate; regardless of what it was, just about everyone had some sort of connection with a soldier who had been killed in Vietnam.

That was a war that lasted 10 years and resulted in around 57,000 U.S. dead. With the flu, we’re talking about 36,000 deaths every single year. What are the odds that I wouldn’t have some sort of a connection with somebody who had died from the flu at some point during my lifetime?

She also pointed out that in over 20 years as an RN working in Intensive Care Units at hospitals in several different states, she could not recall a single death from influenza.

So when I started hearing this number “36,000” again recently, I decided to do a little digging.

The first place I went was to the CDC website (, which is, according to their tagline, “Your Online Source for Credible Health Information.”

Sure enough, there it was: CDC estimated that about 36,000 people died of flu-related causes each year, on average, during the 1990s in the United States. (Source)

But there was also this little statement in the document as well: Flu-related deaths are deaths that occur in people for whom influenza infection was likely a contributor to the cause of death, but not necessarily the primary cause of death.

“Not necessarily the primary cause of death”? Isn’t that essentially the same thing as “not the cause of death”?

It also goes on to say that, Flu is a serious disease that causes illness and deaths nearly every year in the United States.

"Nearly every year"? What the heck does that mean?

Curious – and now a little suspicious as well – I dug a little deeper and found a document that listed the leading causes of death for 2005 and found the following information:

2005 Leading Causes of Death
· Heart disease: 652,091
· Cancer: 559,312
· Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 143,579
· Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 130,933
· Accidents (unintentional injuries): 117,809
· Diabetes: 75,119
· Alzheimer's disease: 71,599
· Influenza/Pneumonia: 63,001
· Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 43,901
· Septicemia: 34,136
· Suicide: 32,637
· Chronic Liver Disease & cirrhosis: 27,530
· Renal Diseases: 24,902
· Parkinsons Disease: 19,544
· Homicide: 18,124
· All others: 433,800

(Total number of deaths: 2,448,017)

Okay, we’re grouping Influenza and Pneumonia together now. Not sure why, but okay. Still, it should be safe to assume that since we have already been told that Influenza accounts for 36,000 deaths, Pneumonia would account for the other 27,001, right? After all, these aren’t conflicting sources; it’s all from the CDC.

A little more digging, however, led me to the “Final Data for 2005”. It even has the CDC logo right on the top of the page. If you scroll down to Table 10 on page 33, you’ll see the breakdown of deaths from Influenza and Pneumonia:

Influenza: 1,812
Pneumonia 61,189

Isn’t that interesting? What happened to 36,000?

Even more interesting is when you take a look at the demographic breakdown. If you do, you’ll find that of the 1,812 people who died from Influenza, 80% of them were 75 or older.

To be honest, I already knew that people died when they got old, but I didn’t realize until now that the CDC will provide estimates that are plus/minus 95% accurate, which I guess is the government equivalent to “pretty good shootin’”.

Maybe the CDC should change their tagline to “Your Online Source of Incredible Health Information”.

Did you know?: During the 1976 Swine Flu scare, only 1 person actually died from the flu, but 25 died from the vaccinations given to prevent it. (Source)


Lightening said...

Who knows what to believe anymore. Does the world have no integrity left? :( Interesting research.

Lisa B. said...

Good article! I needed the laugh. Seriously, ya gotta make a joke of all the insanity to keep from crying. Keep up with the good posts.

Kimberline said...

I actually do know someone who died as a result of having the flu, but he is the only person I have known of and I have NEVER heard anyone speak directly of knowing any other person who died of flu. Technically it was listed on his death certificate as pneumonia that developed as a complication of the flu. My cousin passed on at age 36 after contracting that years flu. (I believe he had been given that years flu shot, so there goes my trust in vaccination as a prevention.) He was one of those people who was at greater risk of that occurance because he had sustained lung damage from breathing chemicals while on a job site.

I don't think that we can really separate "flu" from "pneumonia" in his case or in the case of many people who do die during flu epidemics. They get the flu first, then it begins to manifest complications and usually THOSE are what actually take their life.

I agree that the statistics are skewed and I believe that is a deliberate manipulation to encourage people to rush out for their annual flu shot. Gotta keep people in a state of fear or they won't comply in using up all that lovely vaccine that's been created!

What a joke that they are still discussing developing a vaccine for this flu! Hey, I think it is too late? I think sometimes the governments get a little frustrated that they can't quite seem to get this pandemic rolling, know what I mean? It just seems to not want to be as bad as they wanted to scare us into expecting. Probably shouldn't say that, it is early in the process yet.

Sebastian said...

Interesting digging.

I think that you have to use the same skeptical eye when viewing the line about deaths "from" the vaccinations in 1976. There were deaths after the vaccinations, but at least some of these probably had nothing to do with the shot itself other than timing. (Gina Kolata's book Flu has a lengthy section on the events of the 1976 flu, especially on the public health aspects. It is interesting reading.

If I have a heart attack driving home from Starbucks, it doesn't necessarily mean that coffee caused the heart attack.

The Jackson Family said...

makes you think MAYBE there were more than 57,000 deaths in Vietnam, too...

Anonymous said...

The CDC link you provided specifically said the 1,812 does not reflect the entire nation but only the areas that specifically report influenza deaths to the CDC. Apparently the Feds do not require states to report influenza deaths...anyhow the CDC uses statistical analysis to compute the nationwide ESTIMATE of influenza deaths.

Anonymous said...

Right, pneumonia is a complication of the flu, just like heart failure can be a complication from diabetes. The cause of death is still diabetes because the heart wouldn't have failed if the diabetes didn't exist, just like someone wouldn't have gotten pneumonia if they didn't first have the flu.

If you don't know anyone who has died from the flu than you should count yourself lucky. If you want to find out more about families who have lost loved ones to the flu, you should check out this website:

Katherine said...

You make many great points in this post! We're in south Texas, and I was caught up in the H1N1 hype/hysteria, until I spoke with my family doctor. Now I feel silly for letting the media scare me!

Has Mrs. Catherine started any new blog lately? We sure miss her!

Kimberline said...


Unfortunately it is documented and known by those who have vaccine safety concerns that adverse vaccine reactions are seriously under reported. Some experts on the subject feel that only a SMALL percentage of vaccine reactions are ever reported. I've read that less than 10 percent are reported.

Based on reading how VAERS will pick and choose in odd ways which reports they think are founded, I'm of a mind to think that if they reported 25 deaths from the vaccine, that those were pared down from the actual reported numbers and are far less than actual reported counts. Now add the majority of adverse reactions and deaths which remained unreported. It is a frightening and sobering issue.

We have seen this first hand after one of our children had an adverse and serious reaction to a childhood vaccine. Neither the clinic that gave the shot nor the doctor who treated her for the reaction would report it. I began to distrust the entire vaccine system after watching how her case was mishandled on every level and her resultant health issues were made light of or were "justified" to us. (I was told her reaction was "acceptable" within agreed upon parameters. Who got to agree that it was OK and acceptable for my child to be injured by a vaccine? Why don't concerned parents get to pick the safety panel, rather than the vaccine makers who stand to make tons of money off their product?

It wasn't until years later that I learned I could have reported the reaction myself. Now I encourage parents to report reactions, even if their doctor refuses to do it. How can we trust the FDA rating of safety on vaccines when the actual dangers are withheld because true adverse reactions are being blocked from serious inquiry and study of vaccine safety?