One Inflames, the Other Informs: Comparing AP and Reuters Reports on CDC's Chicago H1N1 Study

August 29th, 2009 9:43 AM

Yesterday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the results of a study entitled "2009 Pandemic Influenza A (H1N1) Virus Infections: Chicago, Illinois, April-July 2009."

In a report Rush Limbaugh criticized on the air, Mike Stobbe of the Associated Press ("Swine flu sends more blacks, Hispanics to hospital") irresponsibly framed CDC's results in racial terms, and then used them as evidence of health care system "inequities."

By contrast, Julie Steenhuysen of Reuters ("In Chicago, swine flu hit children hardest") went right to the study's key finding, namely that H1N1 appears to be more likely to affect children compared to other flu viruses, which have tended to hit the elderly harder.

The opening paragraphs of Steenhuysen's work makes you wonder how the AP and Stobbe could have looked at the same CDC study and not have done anything with its critical age-based finding:

Swine flu infected 14 times as many children as adults over 60 in Chicago, city health department officials reported on Thursday in one of the first detailed looks at the new pandemic virus.

No children have died, but the officials said their analysis suggests that prevention efforts should focus on children.

In many ways, the new H1N1 flu virus acted like the typical seasonal flu in Chicago, causing fever, cough and sore throats for most people, said Dr. Susan Gerber, chief medical officer at the Chicago Department of Public Health.

"What was different was that younger age groups seemed to be getting it more often than older age groups," said Gerber, who reported on the city's swine flu cases in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's weekly report on death and disease.

"Our median age for all of the cases reported to the Chicago Health Department was 12 years old. That's obviously a younger age," Gerber said in a telephone interview.

Stobbe didn't just bury the lede; he didn't report it, period. The word "children" does not appear anywhere, nor does any other age-related term.

Instead, the AP reporter concentrated on largely irrelevant (to be shown shortly) racial disparities:

Swine flu was four times more likely to send blacks and Hispanics to the hospital than whites, according to a study in Chicago that offers one of the first looks at how the virus has affected different racial groups.

The report echoes some unpublished information from Boston that found three out of four Bostonians hospitalized from swine flu were black or Hispanic.

The cause for the difference is probably not genetic, health officials said. More likely, it's because blacks and Hispanics suffer disproportionately from asthma, diabetes and other health problems that make people more vulnerable to the flu.

It's not clear if a racial or ethnic difference will hold up when more complete national data is available, one federal health official said. The findings are based on fairly small numbers of cases from the early days of the pandemic.

"We don't have anything definitive to say one group is more affected than another," said Dr. Daniel Jernigan of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Chicago findings, released Thursday, are believed to be the first published study to detail a racial or ethnic breakdown of swine flu's impact.

..... Earlier this month, Boston health officials released some unpublished information that found three out of four Bostonians hospitalized with swine flu were black or Hispanic.

"It's very disturbing," said Barbara Ferrer of the Boston Public Health Commission, speaking about the higher rates of minority swine flu hospitalizations.

"But intuitively it's understandable, because we have tremendous inequities in most areas of health," said Ferrer, the agency's executive director.

No, Mike and Barb. What's really "disturbing" is that you could look at a report telling us that children aged 0-14 caught H1N1 at a rate 6.4 times greater than those older than 30 and ignore it (the age 0-14 weighted average at the report is 135 per 100,000, vs. 21 per 100,000 for adults over 30).

Stobbe and AP decided that we didn't need to know that, while focusing on racial disparities -- even though the CDC study specifically discounted racial factors in this statement:

These (racial) differences are likely the result of variations in exposure rather than differences in susceptibility. However, underlying conditions, such as asthma and diabetes, are more prevalent among blacks and Hispanics in Chicago, which might explain some of the difference in rates among hospitalized cases.

Note how Stobbe turned CDC's "might explain some of the difference" into "more likely" in the third paragraph of his report.

What Rush said about Stobbe's report yesterday was of course correct, but he could have gone much further. Stobbe's work is worse than inflammatory; it's also negligent. He failed to report CDC's specific recommendation that efforts to combat the disease should "target children and young adults, who are at a disproportionate risk for infection and hospitalization," in favor of a racially-charged, agenda-based narrative.

Shouldn't AP feel accountable if some readers who see Stobbe's report or hear pieces of it over the airwaves choose to wallow in racial bitterness instead of taking steps to protect their kids? I certainly think so.

Cross-posted at