Facebook post about falling flu and pneumonia deaths is wrong
A widely shared post on Facebook claims to show official government statistics for deaths caused by flu and pneumonia in England and Wales. It claims that these deaths dropped sharply this year, and appears to suggest they have been replaced by or re-classified as coronavirus deaths.
However, there are a number of inaccuracies in the post. Its conclusion—that 37,000 deaths from flu and pneumonia have “disappeared” this year—is also wrong.
The figures stated for flu deaths between 2014/15 and 2017/18 are the figures published last year by Public Health England (PHE) for England only, not England and Wales as the post claims. PHE has since published newer data, which updates some of these figures.
The post then claims there have been 394 flu deaths in England and Wales in 2019/20. This figure comes from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), and is based on deaths registered between January and August 2020 (not in 2019/20 as claimed) where influenza was found to be the underlying cause of death. (We’ve written more about this here.)
There are various problems with comparing the two figures in this way to suggest that there has been a massive, suspicious drop in flu deaths this year.
Firstly the “average” figure for flu deaths over recent years notably excludes data for 2018/19, when there was a noticeable drop in the number of flu deaths in England, from 22,087 the year before to 3,966. Including this figure would bring the average flu deaths in a given year below the 20,000 quoted and indicates that in some years there can just be fewer flu deaths.
But more importantly the PHE and ONS figures show very different measures which cannot be compared.
That’s because the PHE figures are calculated using an algorithm which estimates how many excess deaths there are associated with flu. Many of these are not recorded on death certificates, which is what the ONS figure of 394 flu deaths this year is based on.
This means that the post’s assertion that there have been 20,000 fewer flu deaths this year than the average is incorrect.
A fair comparison would use either the ONS or the PHE dataset and not mix them together. Both methods show flu deaths are not abnormally low this year.
By comparison there were 7,990 deaths associated with flu in 2019/20 to the start of March 2020. As the flu season runs until May, and this is the period covered by the statistics from other years, it is possible that the 2019/20 figures will be in line with the average. In any case they are not “20,000 fewer” as claimed.
If we want to use the ONS figures, we know there were 394 flu deaths registered on death certificates between January and August this year in England and Wales. Official data shows this is considerably less than in 2019 (1,213 deaths) and 2018 (1,596 deaths), but it is higher than in 2014 (118 deaths) and 2015 (282 deaths).
The Facebook post also alleges that there were “30,000+” deaths from pneumonia each year from 2014 until 2017. It then jumps to 2020, which it says had 13,619 deaths.
Official data shows the number of deaths where pneumonia was the underlying cause has been consistently below 30,000 every year between 2014 and 2019 in England and Wales, ranging from 25,419 to 29,847.
The ONS has said there were 13,619 deaths caused by pneumonia between January and August 2020. As 2020 is not yet over, we do not have final figures for pneumonia deaths this year. It is likely to increase significantly, especially as many are likely to occur in the winter.
This means the Facebook post’s assertion that there are at least 17,000 fewer pneumonia deaths than the average this year is meaningless.
Have 37,000 flu and pneumonia deaths “disappeared”?
The post’s conclusion is that 37,000 combined flu and pneumonia deaths have disappeared compared to the average, which it compares to an alleged 40,000 Covid-19 deaths in England and Wales. It calls this “one hell of a coincidence”.
We do know that flu and pneumonia deaths have been lower than their five-year average in every month between January and August of this year, but there is no evidence to suggest as many as 37,000 expected flu and pneumonia deaths have not occured.
As mentioned above, the post says there have been 40,000 Covid-19 deaths in England and Wales. This could use some context.
The latest government data (as of 26 October) says there have been 39,766 deaths in England and 1,777 deaths in Wales (41,543 in total) where people tested positive for coronavirus and died within 28 days of their positive test.
However, this does not include people who may have died of Covid-19 without a positive test, especially during the early part of the pandemic when testing was not widely available. In England and Wales, between January and August, 48,168 people died and had Covid-19 listed as the underlying cause of death on their death certificate.
The ONS also warns that some deaths can take months or even years to be registered, so it is possible that more deaths were caused by Covid-19, pneumonia or flu than are included in its figures.
This article is part of our work fact checking potentially false pictures, videos and stories on Facebook. You can read more about this—and find out how to report Facebook content—here. For the purposes of that scheme, we’ve rated this claim as partly false because many of the figures given by the post are wrong.