Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Case Study in Poor Journalism


Oh happy day! A vaccine article in the New York Times I can challenge!

All you readers who say you want to scream when people like me challenge the vaccine status quo – I await your comments with great anticipation. Don’t hold back. I’m itchin’ fer a fight.

So the headline of the article in question is:

A Dose of Potent Advice: Don't Mess With Tetanus
Very cute play on the extremely effective Don’t Mess With Texas public education campaign.

And the opening paragraph reads:
If you scare easily, maybe you'd better not read this column. Then again, maybe a good scare is really what you need to get your immunization against tetanus up to date.
Read all 1200 fear-mongering words if you feel inclined.

I want to draw your attention to the paragraph that is third from the end of this article (on the second page), which, as every journalist knows, will be read by precious few people since folks tend to read the headline, the opening one or two paragraphs and then scan the rest of an article, losing interest long before they reach the end. And having to click to a second page with online articles is deadly.

So here’s the paragraph you probably didn’t read even if you linked to the article:
Before routine childhood immunization began after World War II, the United States had 500 to 600 cases a year (about 40 per 10 million people). The numbers have dropped steadily, to about 50 to 100 a year. But in recent years, there's been a disturbing increase among people under 40, partly linked to drug users in California. Self-piercing and tattooing may also be a factor.
Such a rich paragraph! Every sentence a gem, particularly when taken in relation to the rest of the article which sets up our reason to be afraid...be very afraid.

The way the first two sentences are written, mentioning childhood immunization, creates a false conclusion that immunization was the reason the tetanus numbers have dropped steadily since WWII. One could just as accurately written, “At a time when people relied on horses for transportation, the United States had 500 to 600 cases a year.” Or, “At a time when the majority of citizens lived in rural areas…” Or, "At a time when tens of thousands of Americans were fighting and being injured in wars."

Unfortunately, the website that has the historic chart for all so-called vaccine-preventable diseases is down tonight. My memory is that incidence of tetanus began to decline long before the introduction of the vaccine, except, perhaps, among soldiers who were having the bullet wounds treated in make-shift hospitals.

As for those final two sentences of the paragraph in question... "But in recent years, there's been a disturbing increase among people under 40, partly linked to drug users in California. Self-piercing and tattooing may also be a factor."

I looked at my favourite CDC webpages to find out how many of the 50 to 100 tetanus cases are dieing and how old those people are. The CDC has data for the years 1999 to 2002 and here’s what it says:

Total deaths due to tetanus in 2002: 5
55-59 years old: 1 death
65-69 years old: 1 death
75-79 years old: 2 deaths
80-84 years old: 1 death

Total deaths due to tetanus in 2001: 5
55-59 years old: 1 death
65-69 years old: 1 death
80-84 years old: 1 death
85-89 years old: 2 deaths

Total deaths due to tetanus in 2000: 5
65-69 years old: 1 death
70-74 years old: 2 deaths
80-84 years old: 1 death
90-94 years old: 1 death

Total deaths due to tetanus in 1999: 7
30-34 years old: 1 death
55-59 years old: 1 death
60-64 years old: 1 death
75-79 years old: 3 deaths
85-89 years old: 1 death


What does this prove other than the fact that deaths due to tetanus are outrageously low in the US (1 in 60,000,000) and that not one single under 40 drug user or self-piercer has died from tetanus? Nothing more than the journalist was using partial facts and misleading phrase clusters to prove her thesis that we must all rush out and get our tetanus shot – or, more likely, the thesis of an industry-funded organization since most health stories are generated from the issuance of a press release.

Now, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t get your tetanus vaccine updated. That's a decision each person must make for herself once she has all the facts. It’s called informed consent…and the NYT article does nothing to help inform you about the actual and relative benefits and harms of contracting tetanus or getting the tetanus vaccine.

Shame on the New York Times for such sloppy and biased journalism.

2 Comments:

Blogger Gina said...

I love that photo...hey kid you want some candy....

July 19, 2005  
Blogger Salem Watchen said...

I'm not really one to criticize someone else for irresponsible journalist (my forte), but that is a disgrace.

It's tough enough to get the masses to read. The last thing we need to do is require them to figure things out for themselves.

We need to get you higher circulation.

July 19, 2005  

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