Data in the News: Flu Mortality Statistics

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With spring upon us, it seems the current flu season may be slowly drawing to a close. Current reports from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that the hospitalization rate for flu diagnoses was 59.9 per 100,000 persons during the first week in February. The U.S. has not experienced a rate this high since the 2014-2015 flu season, which reached 50.9 per 100,000 that same week. [1] In reviewing and discussing these hospitalization rates, it is natural to wonder how these hospitalization rates compare to flu death rates.

Death rate statistics for the current flu season have been widely reported; however, while reading these articles remember that these are estimates. Like most health statistics, final mortality data lags by a year or two and so what we currently see in the news today about the flu season are based on estimates of reported flu deaths. What does this mean? It means that these figures are based on preliminary evidence of cause of death, which may be revised once the CDC receives more complete data. That’s not to say the current CDC statistics are wrong, but that they are estimates until the reporting data is finalized which will not happen until much later in 2018.

So what do the annual flu death rates look like? Based on the chart below, we can observe that the average U.S. flu and pneumonia death rate has gradually decreased between 1998 and 2014. Browsing from year to year in the map view, we can also see that Arkansas and West Virginia in particular have experienced consistently high death rates compared to the U.S. average.

Therefore, while the 2018 season had higher estimated rates of hospitalization and death than in recent years, the overall trends show that deaths are declining.

Overall, when reading about data in the news it’s important to examine the information the same way you might when collecting data to use in a class or other project. By acknowledging when data are estimates or preliminary, and seeking out additional information on overall trends, it will be easier to obtain a complete picture of what story the data is telling us.

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