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January 17, 2008

Was winter vomiting bug a media creation?

By Patrick

Nigel Hawkes, health editor of The Times, has poured scorn on media coverage of this year’s winter voming bug, or norovirus. He said that stories of 3m people being laid low from the virus, and factories and schools shutting as a result, were “almost entirely the creation of the media”.

Writing in the paper’s Thunderer comment section yesterday he said that normally, according to the Health Protection Agency, between 600,000 and 1m people catch the virus every year “and there is no reason to suppose this year is any different”.

He said the panic was due to the virus starting in December, somewhat earlier than last year – making year-on-year comparisons look somewhat alarming.

And the what of the 3m claim, which was reported across the print and broadcast media (though not as Hawkes points out, in The Times)? The HPA recorded 2,000 cases of norovirus in December – but the agency estimates that only one in 2,000 cases are recorded. So, if you multiply 1,500 by 2,000, you get….3m.

“Does it matter if the headlines were dominated by an epidemic that never happened?” asks Hawkes? “It does if we care for the truth”.

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