Is life expectancy lower in Merthyr Tydfil than Haiti?

14 February 2011

"Life expectancy on one of Britain's toughest estates is lower than earthquake-ravaged Haiti and war-torn Iraq"
Daily Mail, 12 February 2011

"Life expectancy here is LOWER than earthquake-hit Haiti or war-torn Iraq."
Daily Mirror, 12 February 2011

"Men on the Gurnos estate in Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales, can expect to live 58.8 years - three years less than people in Haiti and eight years less than those in Iraq."
Daily Telegraph, 11 February 2011

The people of Merthyr Tydfil have had a tough time of it in the media of late. Full Fact last year factchecked the News of the World's claim that it topped a joblessness "league table of despair", whilst Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith later told its jobseekers to 'get on a bus' to find work.

One might expect the residents of this South Wales town to have become desensitised to such media scrutiny, however even they might have raised their eyebrows at claims in this weekend's papers that they would be "better off in earthquake-ravaged Haiti and war-torn Iraq."

According to the Mirror, Daily Mail, the Western Mail and the Daily Telegraph, male residents of the Gurnos estate in Merthyr lived for an average of just 58.8 years.

This compares to an average life expectancy in Haiti of 61.2 years, whilst Iraqis manage to postpone the Pale Rider's visit for an average of 67.9 years, according to the World Bank.

Even leaving aside the fact that the latest world life expectancy data pertains to 2008 - before the Haiti earthquake hit - one might have thought there would be problems enough in comparing male life expectancy for one "super output area" — the narrowest local area for which the Office for National Statistics (ONS) holds data — and the total life expectancies of men and women in two nation states. And you'd be right.

However there is an even more fundamental error in these reports.

A look at the life expectancy by ward dataset published by the ONS shows a rather rosier outlook for the average man in Gurnos, who can expect to live to 70, a full 11.2 years more than reported.

As the Director of Public Health at the Cwm Taf Health Board told us, the figure that has been picked up in the press actually refers to the male healthy life expectancy (i.e. the average period for which a man can expect to retain their good health). This is obviously much lower than the total life expectancy.

Moreover the true level of male life expectancy, whilst being amongst the lowest in Wales and the UK, is still higher than both Haiti and Iraq.

The statistic seems to have been misinterpreted at a briefing held by the Health Board's Director of Public Health Nicola John as part of the launch of its interim annual report.

Whether the mistake was on the part of Ms John or the press is unclear, and ultimately irrelevant. Whilst the issue has been clarified by the Cwm Taf Health Board, the erroneous version of the story had already made its way down the M4 and into an number of national papers.

We will now be pursuing these papers for corrections, to ensure that this mistake travels no further.


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