The CDC doesn’t know how many people die of the flu

If you read articles in the media about the number of people in the United States the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates die of influenza each year, the number often quoted is 24,000. That’s a lot of deaths due to the flu. Definitely better get that flu shot.

So what exactly does the CDC say about how it comes up with this number? Well, let’s look at their website, notably the page titled “Estimating Seasonal Influenza-Associated Deaths in the United States: CDC Study Confirms Variability of Flu” athttp://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/disease/us_flu-related_deaths.htm

The page opens with the question, “What are seasonal influenza-related deaths?” This is good, because it gives you an idea of what deaths they attribute to the flu. Here’s the CDC’s answer: “Seasonal influenza-related deaths are deaths that occur in people for whom seasonal influenza infection was likely a contributor to the cause of death, but not necessarily the primary cause of death.”

Hmm, interesting. So the CDC is factoring in deaths that are primarily caused by something else? Fascinating.

Then there’s the question, “Does CDC know the exact number of people who die from seasonal flu each year?” Here’s the first line of the CDC’s response: “CDC does not know exactly how many people die from seasonal flu each year.”

Hmm, well that’s reasonable. I mean, nobody really thought the CDC knows exactly how many people die each year of the flu. It’s assumed that the CDC has some formula that it relies on to provide the estimate. In fact, the CDC says it uses “statistical models to estimate the annual number of seasonal flu-related deaths.”

Fair enough.

So what exactly are these statistical models? I mean, you wouldn’t just expect the public to take a government agency at its word, would you? Of course not.

Here’s what the CDC has to say about the statistic model that it uses: “CDC estimates of annual influenza-associated deaths in the United States are made using well-established scientific methods that have been reviewed by scientists outside of CDC.”

Hmm, how silly. Guess it does come down to trust, after all.

— Marco Cáceres

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