By Julia Belluz - Wednesday, February 13, 2013 - 0 Comments
Unpredictable, wily, erratic: If the seasonal flu were a person, he would be Charlie Sheen. In any given year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates influenza-associated deaths range from a modest 3,000 to the population of a small city, or 48,000. To confront this annual onset, public health agencies ready themselves with preventative measures (flu vaccine) and treatments (such as Tamiflu).
Last month, during peak flu hysteria, the Public Health Agency of Canada made an announcement: that it would release a bunch of the influenza drug Tamiflu from the emergency national stockpile to ensure all Canadians who needed the medication had access. The release was suspect for one key reason: it did not reflect any of the doubts and questions that have been raised by the international research community about Tamiflu, namely, recent high-quality studies that show the medicine may not be as effective as the drug-maker claims.
By Julia Belluz - Friday, January 18, 2013 at 3:12 PM - 0 Comments
There has been plenty of discussion about a particularly bad influenza season in Canada, and even more so in the U.S., as both nations appear to brim with feverish, coughing patients. Things have been so bad south of the border that New York state and Boston declared public states of emergency and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that flu-related deaths have reached into epidemic territory.
But what does that actually mean? According to the CDC, the epidemic threshold for influenza—a virus that attacks your respiratory system, not your guts—is when related deaths account for more than 7.2 per cent of all deaths in a given week. For the week ending Jan. 12, 8.3 per cent of all deaths were due to pneumonia and influenza, just above the epidemic threshold.
This sounds scary, but the death counts from pneumonia and influenza actually aren’t all that high when compared to recent flu seasons. Check out the chart below: Continue…
By Julia Belluz - Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 11:20 AM - 0 Comments
Sometimes, we selectively ignore information. We seek data that confirms our beliefs and biases, and brush off evidence that conflicts with our thinking.
Sometimes, though, it’s not OK to ignore evidence. Especially when it comes to public health. So Science-ish was astonished when the Public Health Agency of Canada announced plans to take “exceptional action” and release a supply of the influenza drug Tamiflu from the emergency national stockpile to “ensure Tamiflu remains available to those Canadians who need it.”
If Tamiflu, also known by its drug name oseltamivir, had meaty evidence behind it, the news would a boon. We’d encourage Canadians to access an effective medicine during flu season. If the drug did what the public health agency suggests— reduce the chances of getting the influenza and minimize the harms associated with the flu in vulnerable elderly folks and kids—the actions would be comforting.
But that’s not the case. The release demonstrated that the guardians of Canadian public health, and sometimes those who report on it, selectively ignore key information.
Allow Science-ish to explain.
When Tamiflu was approved for the treatment of influenza in the late-1990s it was considered an effective drug for shortening the duration of the influenza, minimizing person-to-person spread, and reducing complications such as pneumonia and even hospitalizations. This belief was based on early studies, all funded and carried out by the drug-maker Roche. The antiviral became one of the World Health Organization’s “essential medicines” and governments around the world began to stockpile it to the tune of $6.9 billion worldwide (2009 value). Continue…