What is an epidemic?

“Flu rates have doubled in the last fortnight, according to the figures, raising the spectre of an epidemic within a month if trends continue,” – Laura Donnelly.

Earlier this year, education skeptic Joseph Ohler claimed that the “prescription opioid epidemic” was “fake.”

Laura Donnelly, the Health editor for the Telegraph, wrote on Friday that, “Britain will be in the grip of a flu epidemic by the end of the month if the virus continues to spread at its current rate…”

They seem to have two different definitions of “epidemic.”

If we look at the news stories on Friday, we see the flu is a concern of many newspapers.

In an article from Thursday in The Telegraph, we see some of these numbers.  Flu rates have doubled in one week.  2000 cases hospitalised.  51% rise in cases that were hospitalised. A total death toll of 85.

Well, if rates have doubled in the last fortnight, and continue to double twice more, then we could see perhaps a total of (85*2)*2 =340 flu deaths.  By then, flu season would be all but over.

Now, if we take Ohler’s definition of epidemic, we see him saying that painkillers are only the 16th leading cause of death.  He names three more common causes of death that aren’t labelled as epidemics.

However, an epidemic is not based on how common deaths are.  It is how widespread it is, and has to do with growth as well.  If you don’t believe me, check out the Oxford dictionary definition.   In medical terms, an epidemic is related to a sudden outbreak, a disease wasn’t a problem previously.  Flu epidemics are common in winter, as fewer people contract flu in the warmer months.  (They say that news is when the unusual happens.  So, a real news story might read “no flu epidemic all winter.”  Now, that would be unusual.)

It is significant that the Telegraph leads with a story about a flu epidemic, with a front page photograph of a young victim.  Other newspapers, such as the Western Mail and the “I”, open with “Patients dying in corridors.”  An “A & E crisis.”

The slant makes a difference.  Where the more conservative leading papers talk about a largely unpredictable epidemic, left leaning papers emphasise funding and staff shortages.  Is the cause of the problem the virus, or an underfunded NHS?

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