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Worse than COVID? Medical experts weigh in on NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet's 'more severe' flu claim

RMIT ABC Fact Check
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RMIT ABC Fact Check and RMIT FactLab present the latest in debunked misinformation.

CheckMate is a weekly newsletter from RMIT FactLab which recaps the latest in the world of fact checking and misinformation, drawing on the work of FactLab and its sister organisation, RMIT ABC Fact Check.

You can read the latest edition below, and subscribe to have the next newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.

CheckMate July 22, 2022

This week, CheckMate asks whether the flu is more dangerous than COVID-19, as claimed by NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet.

We also debunk a suggestion that polar bear numbers have spiked, and look at the latest data on the link between COVID jabs and period changes.

Is Dominic Perrottet correct that the flu is 'more severe' than COVID-19?

Following Prime Minister Anthony Albanese's decision to reinstate COVID-19 leave payments, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet took to Sydney radio on Monday to flag a possible relaxation of isolation rules, arguing that the same rules did not apply to people with the flu.

"In many cases at the moment, the current strand of influenza is more severe than the current strands of COVID," Mr Perrottet said.

Asked by 2GB host Ben Fordham if the current health advice was "that there are current strains of the flu that are more dangerous than the current strains of coronavirus", Mr Perrottet responded: "That's what we're seeing."

So, is the flu more severe than COVID-19?

As always, it's complicated, with an analysis of the data available making it hard to draw direct comparisons about the severity of the two illnesses.

NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet
Making an assessment on the NSW Premier's claim about the flu currently being "more severe" than COVD-19 is complicated, experts say.(ABC News)

Data relating to hospitalisations for COVID-19, which is made available in the NSW Respiratory Surveillance Report, includes anyone admitted to hospital who has tested positive for the virus in the previous 14 days, regardless of why they were admitted.

Flu hospitalisations, meanwhile, are defined in the report as "unplanned emergency department presentations for 'influenza-like illness' (ILI) requiring an admission". That means such patients have not necessarily been clinically diagnosed with the flu. (RMIT ABC Fact Check has previously explained that laboratory testing of suspected flu cases is reasonably uncommon.)

Caveats aside, the hospitalisation figures for COVID-19 and the flu are vastly different.

In the week to July 16, 806 people were admitted to NSW hospitals with COVID-19, including 77 admitted to ICUs. Those admissions brought the total number of patients in hospital with COVID-19 to 2,058.

In comparison, 42 people were admitted for likely influenza. (No figure for flu cases in ICUs was available.)

As for deaths, NSW recorded 142 COVID-19 fatalities in the week to July 16.

State data on flu-related deaths was not available, though Australia-wide figures relating to the 2022 flu season showed that 113 deaths had been attributed to the flu as at July 3.

The national report also notes a number of caveats with the data, and makes clear that "the number of influenza-associated deaths" recorded "does not represent the true mortality associated with" the disease.

Of course, when it comes to COVID-19, it's worth remembering that there have been more than 8,000 deaths in Australia since January.

A better measure of severity, however, is the case fatality rate of each disease, which is the percentage of cases resulting in death.

According to Paul Glasziou, the director of the Institute for Evidence-Based Healthcare at Bond University, the case fatality rates for COVID-19 and the flu were "roughly comparable", though he noted such a comparison was problematic.

"The direct comparison is hard because of different detection rates of cases of each," he told CheckMate.

"We are probably detecting more of the COVID [from home RATs] than we are influenza, so that makes the influenza case fatality appear worse than it would be if most cases were detected."

Professor Glasziou added that COVID-19 was a "much bigger issue because of the much higher infection rates".

"The total of 113 influenza deaths this year is equal to about two days of current COVID deaths."

Professor David Henry, also of the Institute for Evidence-Based Healthcare, added that some people had experienced second and third documented infections with COVID-19, which "crossed seasons in a way that flu generally doesn't".

Additionally, Ian Barr, the deputy director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza at the Doherty Institute, told CheckMate it was important to take age into account when considering relative severity, with children more susceptible to severe flu symptoms and outcomes (including hospitalisation) when compared to COVID-19.

"As the ages increase, this is likely to be less so and, when the elderly are considered, then those over 70 appear to be faring much worse with COVID-19 compared to influenza."

No, polar bear numbers haven't exploded

mother bear with two cubs
Shrinking sea ice remains a threat to the future of polar bears, experts agreed. (Supplied: Steven Amstrup, Polar Bears International)

An internet meme produced by the conservative political group Turning Point USA has resurfaced on Australian social media, wrongly suggesting polar bears — long a symbol of the warming climate — have seen their numbers dramatically increase.

"When Al Gore was born there were 7,000 of us," reads the text, superimposed over a picture of a polar bear family. "Today only 30,000 remain."

The meme sarcastically refers to former US vice-president Al Gore, whose 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth warned of melting polar ice caps due to climate change and the effect this was having on polar bears.

It's not the first time the film has been derided, with Australian mining magnate Gina Rinehart last year telling high-school students that its truthfulness was "short on delivery" because, for example, polar bear numbers "have increased".

But as RMIT ABC Fact Check found, such claims don't check out.

The problem is, the most robust counts of the species do not allow for historical comparisons of the total population.

Instead, they provide estimates for 19 regional subpopulations — and for many of those, reliable figures for calculating trends are not available. In some cases, there are no estimates at all.

So, what does the available data say?

Over the long term, data from July 2021 showed two of the 19 subpopulations had "very likely" decreased while another had "likely" decreased. The other 16 did not have enough data to make a determination.

Over the short term, four subpopulations were likely stable, two had likely increased and three had likely decreased, with the remaining 10 being data deficient.

Experts told Fact Check that the data limitations made it difficult to say whether the total polar bear population had risen or fallen over time, but all agreed that shrinking sea ice was a threat to the species' future.

Survey suggests short-term link between vaccines and periods, but no need for alarm

Three tampons sit on a pink surface.
Researchers noted that menstrual irregularities following vaccination were not unique to COVID-19 jabs.(ABC News: Margaret Burin)

An analysis of a survey linking COVID-19 jabs with changes to menstrual cycles has been seized upon by anti-vaxxers and others opposed to vaccine mandates as vindication of their concerns.

"Reports of infertility, miscarriages and SIDS skyrocketing … and the MSM just quietly drops this," read one popular Telegram post, which linked to a news article about the survey.

"Another conspiracy-fact confirmed," far-right activist Avi Yemini tweeted.

Earlier in the pandemic, CheckMate explained that there was insufficient data to draw a link between COVID-19 jabs and menstrual changes.

So, what does the new evidence show?

Conducted by academics at Washington University and the University of Illinois, the survey involved roughly 39,000 people who were double vaccinated.

It found that 42 per cent of those with regular periods bled more heavily than usual after vaccination. Meanwhile, a number of others who did not typically menstruate reported breakthrough bleeding.

"​​Generally, changes to menstrual bleeding are not uncommon or dangerous, yet attention to these experiences is necessary to build trust in medicine," the researchers headed by Dr Kathryn Clancy wrote, adding that dismissal by medical experts had only fuelled community concerns and led some people to conflate "the possibility of short-term menstrual changes with long-term harms to fertility".

However, they explained, the uterine reproductive system can cope with short-term stressors "in a way that leaves long-term fertility intact", with 40-plus years of research showing that while these "can and do influence periods", they "do not produce long-term effects".

In addition, the researchers noted that menstrual irregularities following vaccination were not unique to COVID-19 jabs, and had also been associated with vaccination against typhoid, hepatitis B and HPV.

Peter Rogers, a professor of women's health research at the University of Melbourne, told CheckMate that, in his view, such changes were "not something [people] should worry about" since "relatively minor environmental impacts can and do alter the menstrual process".

There were also several reasons why such changes were "unlikely" to indicate anything about fertility, he said, including that menstruation — which does not occur if an embryo successfully implants — was "not directly linked to fertility".

Experts and health authorities continue to advise that the clinical evidence shows that vaccines do not affect fertility, as CheckMate explored last week.

Anti-abortion fight resorts to twisting definitions

Anti-abortion marchers (L) argue with pro-abortion rights activists (R) in front of the US Supreme Court.
Pro-life and pro-choice protesters outside the US Supreme Court in 2013.(Reuters: Jonathan Ernst)

Debate in the US has continued to rage since the Supreme Court's ruling to rescind constitutional protections for women seeking an abortion, handing legal authority back to the states.

Fact checkers are busy tackling claims on the topic, including one that a Texas state lawmaker had recently sought to allow the death penalty for women who underwent the procedure.

That claim was deemed "mostly true" by PolitiFact, which found the substance — but not the timing — was correct: a Texas bill to punish abortion with the death penalty was proposed in 2021, prior to the Roe v Wade fallout, though it never made it out of the committee stage.

More widespread have been claims that abortion is "never medically necessary".

These have been debunked by multiple outlets, with AFP finding that such assertions hinge on a "distorted, inaccurate understanding of what abortion is".

That, explains, includes redefining abortion to include only those situations where the sole aim of the medical intervention is to "produce a dead baby" rather than to save the mother's life.

Similarly, the head of a prominent US anti-abortion group recently sought to redefine the term by arguing that, in the case of a 10-year-old rape victim whose life could be at risk from carrying to term, it's "not an abortion".

But that suggestion was flatly rejected by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which told PolitiFact that the definition of abortion was "not dependent on the reason for needing an abortion".

Speaking to the various fact checkers, experts listed a host of circumstances under which terminating a pregnancy may be medically necessary, such as preeclampsia, ectopic pregnancy and cancer treatment, to name just a few.

Edited by Ellen McCutchan and David Campbell

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This newsletter is supported by funding from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas(Judith Nielson Institute)