Steve November 20, 2020
the-number-of-deaths-from-flu-and-pneumonia-is-about-what-you-would-expect-this-year

20 November 2020

What was claimed

Surprisingly few people have died of flu or pneumonia in 2020 so far.

Our verdict

2020’s flu and pneumonia death figures are low, but this post makes the fall seem much more extreme than it is, by comparing this year with the worst on record.

A widely shared post on Facebook compares the number of deaths from diseases categorised as “flu & pneumonia” (which in practice means deaths from flu or pneumonia) in the first eight months of five different years.

It shows that far fewer people have died of these diseases so far this year, compared with 1976, 1982, 1997 or 2000. “Does anyone else find this just a little bit odd?” the post says, which some readers may understand to imply that tens of thousands of flu and pneumonia deaths are being wrongly recorded as deaths from Covid-19. (This is a common misunderstanding.)

In fact, this post is a perfect example of what’s sometimes called “cherry-picking”—choosing unusual examples to suit an argument, but hiding the whole picture.

What is wrong with the numbers?

The figures themselves are accurate. They come from data for England and Wales published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on 8 October 2020. What’s odd is the choice of years to look at. 

As you can see from the graph below, there have been relatively few deaths from flu or pneumonia in the first eight months of 2020. It’s the lowest figure in recent decades, but not outlandishly low, when compared with the number of people dying in the same period of recent years.

By contrast, the years 1976, 1982, 1997 and 2000 are the four years with the highest flu and pneumonia deaths in the first eight months on record (going back to 1959).

And a fall in flu and pneumonia deaths might have been expected this year, since many of the social distancing and hygiene measures introduced to reduce the spread of Covid would be likely to reduce the spread of other infectious diseases as well.

Indeed, evidence from countries in the southern hemisphere (during what would typically be their winter flu season) suggests that this is exactly what happened, as there were significantly fewer flu infections than normal.

It’s also possible that some high risk people who might have died from flu or pneumonia in a normal year may have died from Covid instead in 2020.

If deaths from flu or pneumonia in the first eight months of 2020 had been similar to the numbers recorded in the four highlighted years, that would have been more surprising.

This article is part of our work fact checking potentially false pictures, videos and stories on Facebook. You can read more about this—and find out how to report Facebook content—here.

For the purposes of that scheme, we’ve rated this claim as missing context
because it does not include figures from recent years, which show a much smaller fall in 2020.

Can you chip in to help us do more?

You’ve probably seen a surge in misleading and unsubstantiated medical advice since the Covid-19 outbreak. If followed, it can put lives at serious risk. We need your help to protect us all from false and harmful information.

We’ve seen people claiming to be health professionals, family members, and even the government – offering dangerous tips like drinking warm water or gargling to prevent infection. Neither of these will work.

The longer claims like these go unchecked, the more they are repeated and believed. It can put people’s health at serious risk, when our services are already under pressure.

Today, you have the opportunity to help save lives. Good information about Covid-19 could be the difference between someone taking the right precautions to protect themselves and their families, or not. Could you help protect us all from false and harmful information today?

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