Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Flu Hype

There is reason to be skeptical of the official flu statistics. In the United States, there was a huge spike in flu cases in the second half of August — they increased tenfold — yet this does not seem to show up in the official statistics at all. Last week the CDC was emphasizing a jump in flu-like illnesses reported in doctor visits, but the increase coincides with the government’s unusually aggressive immunization campaign, so it probably reflects patients’ worries rather than any actual increase in cases. Among people who are being tested for flu these days, more are seeing the tests rule out flu than are seeing flu confirmed. This unusual result is more easily explained by an increase in testing than by an increase in cases.

From everything I can see, the U.S. flu peak occurred in the second half of August — a highly unusual occurrence that perhaps just shows that a flu pandemic doesn’t act like the usual seasonal flu. Until there are signs that flu is picking up again, the flu hype coming from the government, including a state of emergency declaration that came out yesterday, is not justified. In a way, this fall’s flu hype can be seen as a repeat of the financial hysteria of one year ago. That was an episode that led the White House and Congress to make some panicky and ultimately very damaging decisions about the economy, and it kept millions of people awake at night worrying. The new flu hype is, I am afraid, leading many of the same people to worry needlessly again.