Saturday, 19 September 2009

Black Death v Swine Flu

"The ‘hushing-up’ system is in sanitary matters about as dangerous as anything can well be” - The Lancet, 1870.

I've moaned on many an occasion about the lack of any helpful details on swine flu deaths. The website Straight Statistics shares my exasperation and points out: "When a British soldier dies in Afghanistan, we know within days the sex, age and region of residence of the fatality, together with the immediate cause of death. How different it is for swine flu."

Actually, there's a more stark example than the parallel with soldiers dying in Afghanistan: I can find out more details about people who died during a visit the Black Death to Cumbria in 1598 than I can about swine flu in 2009. For the Black Death I can tell you how many died, their names, where they lived, the precise date of their death, sex, occupation, partner's name, social class and whether they were buried in the churchyard or out on the Fells. No ages are given but it would be easy to work these out by checking with the baptismal records. In contrast the information given to the public about swine flu deaths in modern Britain in 2009 is: the number of deaths and... er, well that's it really.

The latest entrant for my "2009 Hushing Up Award" is the Department of Health in Northern Ireland. You may recall great confusion in the last few days as to whether a baby in the province died of swine flu or not. This wasn't helped by the Department of Health claiming it died of a heart condition not related to swine flu and yet the baby's death seemingly been added to the swine flu death tally in that week's figures released by the Health Protection Agency. The Department of Health refused to release the sex or age of the baby. For goodness sake why not! One can fully appreciate the family wanting their details kept private but to say, for example, a baby boy of six months has died is hardly likely to intrude on their grief. I can't even tell you with any certainty on what date the baby died but it was probably September 15th, 2009 The medieval peasants scribbling on parchment 400 years ago did, it seem, a better job of recording data than 21st century man.

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