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The Real Story Behind The Flu Numbers

Last week, I wrote about the quick backtracking from federal officials about the need for most healthy Americans to be vaccinated for the flu. I'm still disturbed by the "scarcity mentality" I've observed over the past few weeks, fed largely part by an electronic media starving for news.

If you want to pin it down to a sound bite, consider the way too familiar "killer statistic:" The flu's average annual death toll in the United States is 36,000. But if you once again remember last week's blog story, dig deeply enough and you'll find far fewer people actually died nationally from the flu.

Today's New York Times featured an interesting piece that does a good job of explaining the story behind the numbers. Federal and state health officials may all proclaim great confidence in the annual estimates of those killed by the flu. However, the system for determining those numbers is complex, imprecise and anonymous.

How odd could it be? For example, some 2.500 deaths were blamed on the flu in New York City two years ago, yet influenza showed up on only two death certificates. And no death certificate listed the flu as a probable cause in 2001.

Perhaps, the problem stems from the fact influenza is often not directly responsible for a patient's death, just the last straw in a complicated mix of physical problems that lead to death.

Learn more about some simple ways to avoid catching the flu this winter by reviewing my story that lists six healthy and inexpensive options.

New York Times November 3, 2004

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