An online article in the Sun made a number of mistakes when reporting on a study published in the Lancet into the effects of childhood lung infections.
The researchers looked at people who had lower respiratory infections (LRTIs)–including bronchitis, bronchopneumonia, and pneumonia– reported before the age of two. Participants who had at least one LRTI by this age were associated with increased risk of premature death from respiratory conditions in general.
The article in the Sun made a number of mistaken claims about the findings of the study, and respiratory infections in general. At Full Fact we have fact checked misreported research several times before. Accurately describing research findings in the media is important in order to avoid readers making health decisions based on bad information.
After Full Fact contacted the Sun about these issues, the paper updated the article.
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The top line of the Sun’s original article warned: "Catching pneumonia or other lung condition [sic] in childhood could double your risk of dying from an infection later in life, a study claims."
This is not what the study showed. The majority of the deaths that researchers linked to early pneumonia or lung infections were from other lung diseases, with only 13% due to an acute infection.
The corrected top line now reads: “Catching pneumonia or other lung conditions in childhood could double your risk of dying from a respiratory disease later in life, a study claims.” This better reflects the findings in the study.
The Sun’s article also claimed that researchers "found infections in early childhood could lead to a fifth of premature deaths from respiratory disease later in life — nearly 180,000 in [England and Wales] since 1972."
The study only reports on an association between these two things, and does not claim to show causality, or that these infections lead to these deaths. The authors are careful to say “If the association was causal” when providing their calculations.
The Sun corrected this paragraph to read “They found infections in early childhood were linked to a fifth of premature deaths [...]”, more accurately reflecting the fact that researchers did not state a definite causal link.
The Sun also reported: "[Pneumonia] accounted for around a quarter of the 1,589 people who died from a lower respiratory tract infection in 2012, the latest year figures are available for."
The previous paragraph in the article refers to the British Lung Foundation, suggesting that the Sun is citing figures from the Foundation. However, the article does not correctly explain what these figures show.
The British Lung Foundation’s data actually shows pneumonia accounted for 28,952 deaths that year, or around a quarter from all respiratory causes, not just infections. The same data also shows 1,589 deaths from “acute lower respiratory infections” (other than pneumonias) in the UK in 2012.
It is also not correct that 2012 is the latest year for which we have figures. Figures for 2021 show pneumonia caused 16,197 deaths in England and Wales that year, around 40 times the figure originally given by the Sun. These deaths made up over three quarters of the total number of deaths from infections in the lung and lower respiratory tract. These statistics are also released annually.
After we contacted them, the Sun updated their article with statistics from 2020, but have not used the latest figures from 2021.
Finally, the article seems to refer to pneumonia as a "common bug" and "The infection", but the condition of pneumonia can be caused by a large number of different 'bugs'—different species of bacteria, viruses and fungi can all cause the disease.
Image courtesy of Victoria Akvarel