Swinenewsflash! 21,000 college students missing!

“Twenty-one thousand college students are sick,” begins a Fox online news report titled: “H1N1 Picks Up Steam One Week Before Vaccine Becomes Available.” Wow! That’s a lot of sick kids! Tell us more!

But there is nothing more on those 21,000. Lots of talk about people swamping emergency rooms and school closings, yet not a single number regarding actual flu cases in a 765-word article.

What if it began “Flying saucers land on the White House lawn” and no flying saucers were mentioned again? And no, Fox fans, I’m not picking on your favorite network. Lots of people are tossing that number around; I just stumbled upon the Fox piece first.

Turns out the data are from the American College Health Association (ACHA) and are cumulative since August 22. So unless we assume that everybody who got the flu five weeks ago still has it, it’s hardly the snapshot implied by the present tense “are” and is worthless in determining whether the bug is “picking up steam” or “petering out.”

And the truly nifty thing about cumulative cases is they never go down. So next week they can use a higher figure and the week after a still higher one. Let’s play that with other diseases. “100 million Americans have cancer!” Or maybe, “10 million kids have polio!”

Cumulative figures are also useless for determining what’s happening right now – which is what this article and all the other scare stories are supposedly about. Nevertheless, the ACHA figures for the latest week at this writing show a 15% increase. Not exactly the end of the world, and in part it reflects that more institutions were reporting than the week before. Still, the increase for this week may prove much higher.

This is how you play the game, kids. But I’m guessing there are a lot of exhausted emergency room workers, along with truly ill patients being pushed aside by the worried well, who don’t really enjoy it.