Published March 14, 2017
Ten-year old Payton Elizabeth Pierson was reported to have died of influenza on Feb. 9, 2017, according to media sources....
— William Wilberforce
When “flu season” arrives each year, it is accompanied by a surge of media reports about children who have died from influenza. Many of these stories focus on the dangers of contracting influenza, which usually leads to the journalist or media outlet to emphasize the need for everyone to get an annual flu shot regardless of whether it is effective or not.1 2 3 4 In many cases, the death is blamed on the child not having received the flu shot.
In cases where the child did get the flu shot, the fact that the vaccine proved to be ineffective is entirely dismissed. Often, news stories indiscriminately attribute the death to influenza while omitting important background information and events leading up to the death. Attributing death to influenza may not always be as straightforward as it appears.
After reading numerous news reports of children dying from the “flu,” it is evident that journalists are not asking public health officials relevant questions regarding the child’s medical history and the events that occurred after the child contracted influenza. These media stories are missing important questions regarding potential co-factors that could contribute to an influenza-related death.
First, journalists should be asking questions about the medical history. Did the child have any other health problems, such as asthma or another chronic disease? Was the child taking any prescription drugs? Could any other environmental or biological co-factors have contributed to the child’s death?
Equally important are questions regarding the events that occur after the child contracts the influenza. When and how many times did the child see a physician? Was the child under the care of more than one physician? Was the child prescribed any medications and what are the side effects of those medications? If prescribed more than one medication, could the drugs have interacted with each other or with a previously prescribed medication?
Numerous factors come into play when determining the cause-of-death, however, current news stories on influenza-related deaths are based on selective reporting and, therefore, often do not provide an accurate or thorough account of what happened. This type of careless journalism about influenza-related deaths communicates misleading information and promotes anxiety and fear.
Historically, the mission of journalists has been to straightforwardly and wit professionalism report news that contains accurate facts, fair balance and does not forward a narrative with a specific political, ideological or business agenda.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) mortality statistics only count “the underlying cause-of-death” which is defined as the condition that led the person to seek treatment.5
The CDC uses the World Health Organization’s (WHO) definition of “underlying cause-of-death”:
the disease or injury, which initiated the train of events leading directly to death, or the circumstances of the accident or violence, which produced the fatal injury. Underlying cause-of-death is selected from the conditions entered by the physician on the cause of death section of the death certificate. When more than one cause or condition is entered by the physician, the underlying cause is determined by the sequence of conditions on the certificate, provisions of the International Classification of Disease, and associated selection rules and modifications.5
Any other medical complications or errors that occur before or after the patient seeks medical treatment are not included in published totals making it crucial to understand what is known and not known about each death.6
1 Robinson L. Flu concerns heighten in Maryland after girl’s death. WBALTV.com Feb. 6, 2017.Hinton J. Winston-Salem girl, 12, has died from flu. Winston-Salem Journal Feb. 22, 2017.