Statement: “An all-time high of 65 people died during the last ‘flu season’ in San Diego County… ” — City News Service, via CBS8, Sept. 26, 2013.

Determination: False

Analysis: While it doesn’t seem to have arrived just yet, flu season is almost certainly on its way. By January or February, we’re likely to be swimming — like always — in fevers, coughs and fatigue.

The flu is also likely to kill. The old and the very sick are especially susceptible to death from influenza.

How bad could it get? Last week, the county’s Health and Human Services Agency announced that a record 65 people died of the flu from July 2012 to June 2013.

A story by City News Service, which provides local news coverage  to TV and radio stations, described the death toll as an “all-time high.” The headline on the City News Service story as it appeared on CBS8: “Health officials report deadliest flu season ever.” And the East County Magazine referred to “the highest number of flu deaths on record.”

Pomerado News, meanwhile, reported that the 65 deaths topped the previous record number, 58, in the 2009-2010 flu season.

These numbers indicate how serious the flu can get in San Diego. But they also suggest that the flu isn’t a threat to the wide majority of people who aren’t old, or ill, or both. In total, the 2012-2013 flu killed .002 percent of San Diego County’s 3.14 million residents, or about one in 20,000 people.

That’s not an all-time record. Far from it, in fact. The flu could be tremendously worse for San Diego, as the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 proved.

The ultimate death toll from the flu in the city of San Diego alone would be 368 people — one in every 200 residents.

At first, local leaders in 1918 didn’t pay much attention to reports of illness on the East Coast and then at the Army’s Fort Kearny in San Diego. Trainees were quarantined at Balboa Park and even ordered to stop spitting in public. But business leaders didn’t want to threaten commerce by shutting down public places.

The deaths kept rising, however, and finally even the pro-business mayor grew weary of those who wanted to keep stores and theaters. “If we cannot put life and health above dollars and pleasure for a few days,” said Louis Wilde, “we had better abolish the Bible and the Constitution.”

Ultimately, the city virtually shut down for several days in December 1918 as the flu raged. Citizens had to wear hygienic masks or face fines and the listing of their names in the newspapers.

The Spanish Flu dissipated, but not before hundreds were dead in the city of San Diego and tens of millions worldwide. Many of the victims were young and strong; scientists are still trying to figure out why they were so susceptible to that year’s flu strain instead of the old and frail.

So why are local media outlets saying the 2012-2013 flu season was the deadliest ever in our city? Because the county’s health department told them so: It announced the 68 deaths were the most “on record.”

Craig Sturak, a spokesman for the Health and Human Services Agency, said the department meant the most on “local health department record.” That record, he said, only goes back to the 2003-2004 flu season.

While county health officials are smart to warn people about the potentially deadly effects of the flu, they should be more careful about the numbers they distribute to the public. If a number is a record high, what does that mean? How far do the records go back? And if they don’t extend far into the past (as in this case), how come?

There’s a world of difference between a flu season taking the lives of one in every 200 people and killing one in 20,000. We should know that both scenarios are possible here.

If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.

Randy Dotinga

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at randydotinga@gmail.com...

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