Monday, 31 August 2009

Misinformation caused by those who complain of misinformation

This journalist make a silly assumption that the infection, if 30,000
per week, will maintain at this rate for the next week.

For infectios disesase, each one of the 30,000 will infect more than
one person.
If the previous week there was only one, it gives an impression that
this one person has infected 30,000, so similarly for the next week.

The next week infection will be 30,000 x 30,000, which is 900 million,
higher than the population of Taiwan.

The observed death rate is 10 per month, so the infection rate should
also be similar, i.e. about 10 per month.

I.e. you multiply the number of infections of the previous months with
10, in order to get the number for the present month.

Of course, you can reduce this infection rate if you take special
precautions such as closing schools as what Mexico had done, but once
you return to normal, this rate will return because the infection is
already embedded in the society.

Misinformation can be as dangerous as the virus

Monday, August 31, 2009
The China Post news staff

Recently, the front pages of many newspapers and the main segments of
many TV news programs have featured scary numbers: 7 million Taiwanese
people may contract the A(H1N1)) influenza, also known as swine flu,
and 7,000 may die as a result.

It is understandable why the media tends to rely on numbers: they are
concrete, they are concise and precise. They are neat enough to put
into the headlines. Numbers are also good indicators of the "late-
breakingness" of news: The biggest ones make for the latest updates.

The problem with numbers is that while a number may be worth a
thousand words, these words can be misleading when the number is taken
out of context.

7,000 deaths is apparently a significant number, almost three times
the 2,416 casualties of the Sept. 21 Earthquake that occurred a decade
ago. Such number inevitably adds a tone of emergency to the pundits'
proclamations which in turn instills a sense of fear in the people.

While the seven-million estimation, made by Taiwan's former top health
official, Chen Chien-jen, based on the calculations of the World
Health Organization (WHO) and the 7,000 deaths based on his
"conservative" assumption of the A(H1N1) flu's death rate (0.1
percent) are sound, they can present a distorted picture of the
situation when they are used without one key piece of information:
over how long?

As the current health minister Yaung Chih-liang pointed out in a rare
press conference to rebuff the abundance of misinformation in the
media, even if the A(H1N1) virus maintains a high infection rate of
30,000 per week, which is unlikely, it would take over four years for
the number to reach 7 million. The 7,000 death rate is therefore a
four year tally at most.

According to the WHO, 250,000 to 500,000 people in the world die from
seasonal influenza, the "normal" flu, every year. According to
Taiwanese data, seasonal flu kills about 2,000 people per year. In
four years, the statistical death toll of seasonal flu in Taiwan has
been 8,000.

That does not mean that the A(H1N1) flu should be taken lightly. While
seasonal flu-triggered pneumonia generally causes death to infants and
the infirm, the new strain is most fatal for adults in their 30s to

It is exactly because the A(H1N1) flu is a challenge to reckon with
that the media should handle high numbers with great care. The
contention that it is passable to run sensational information as long
as it helps raise people's attention to the pandemic is false because
misquoted information only distracts people from learning the right
facts about flu prevention.Research by Common Health Magazine found
that despite wide coverage of the flu-related news, only 6.8 percent
of Taiwan's people fully understand the mechanisms of transmission of
the A(H1N1) virus. The A(H1N1) flu can only be transmitted through
droplets or contact inflection. The virus is not transmitted through
airborne means.

According to the research, more than 30 percent of people mistakenly
believe that the flu is spread through airborne or droplet
transmission while nearly 20 percent wrongly thought that they can be
infected with A(H1N1) through the air, droplets and contact.

Research has shown the counter-intuitive yet clear truth that
sometimes massive media coverage does not equal comprehensive
education of the people.

This is not a uniquely Taiwanese problem. U.S. President Barack Obama,
widely recognized as one of the best communicators in recent U.S.
history, has found himself greatly challenged in his health care
reform campaign by raging misleading information such as that his new
health care bill will encourage euthanasia and sponsor abortion.

With its credibility severely eroded in the aftermath of Typhoon
Morakot, President Ma Ying-jeou's administration is facing a crisis of
confidence. The government was determined to go all out to regain its
popularity, no matter the cost. The President was even quoted as
saying that the post-Morakot rebuilding process has to be done ASAP
"or else the government will be scolded again by the people."

The job of the government is not to obey the wishes of the masses, or
to avoid the heat of public denunciations. The government should be
first and foremost the protector of the people. As the health
minister, Yaung demonstrated his leadership and that he valued the
people's welfare beyond his personal career by standing up to fear
mongering and misinformation. However, the bravery of Yaung should not
be the end of it.

If the Ma administration truly wishes to redeem itself, it should not
focus only on the belated admission that it can "listen to the people"
and "feel their pain," it should take the lead in protecting people
from painful disasters in the future. Sometimes that means having the
courage to do the right thing, not the popular one.

Copyright © 1999 – 2009 The China Post.

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