Since his inauguration, there are three epidemics that President Trump has addressed on Twitter: An “epidemic” of human trafficking, an epidemic of crime in Chicago and, of course, the opioid epidemic. That latter epidemic has been a plague in many parts of the country, resulting in an estimated 64,000 deaths in 2016. It was a key part of Trump’s campaign, too, although his administration hasn’t outlined a specific strategy to combat it.
There’s another epidemic underway in the United States about which Trump hasn’t said anything: the flu.
Flu hospitalizations have been much higher this season than is usually the case.
It’s hard to know how many deaths result from the flu, for several reasons articulated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“First, states are not required to report individual seasonal flu cases or deaths of people older than 18 years of age to CDC,” the agency’s website reads. “Second, seasonal influenza is infrequently listed on death certificates of people who die of flu-related complications. Third, many seasonal flu-related deaths occur one or two weeks after a person’s initial infection. … Also, most people who die of seasonal flu-related complications are not tested for flu.”
That said, the CDC does compile weekly estimates of the number of flu and pneumonia deaths, because deaths from the latter illness tend to correspond to increases in flu deaths. The most recent data are through the third week of 2018 and show a weekly average of nearly 4,700 deaths from the two illnesses. Three thousand of those deaths alone have been attributed to the flu.
In a typical year, the CDC estimates that 12,000 to 56,000 people die of the flu — and this is shaping up to be a worse-than-typical year. In other words, nearly as many people are likely to die of the flu or flu complications as died in 2016 from the opioid epidemic.
Unlike that epidemic, though, there’s a well-established and immediate way to reduce the number of deaths: vaccination.
The flu vaccine is not perfect, and this year’s vaccine has proven less effective than those in other years. (The vaccine is formulated in anticipation of the strains of flu that are likely to be common during the flu season. This year, a strain not included in the vaccine has been both common and fast-spreading.) Nonetheless, promoting vaccination is a simple way to reduce infection or the duration of illness.
Trump hasn’t promoted the flu vaccine, either through his personal Twitter account, the White House account or the @POTUS account. Barack Obama didn’t do so from his personal account as president, either, despite flu epidemics in 2013 and 2015. His administration did, in 2009, promote efforts to combat the flu in a number of government agencies.
Trump’s relationship with vaccinations, in general, is a bit rocky. In the past, he has promoted the completely debunked idea that there’s a link between vaccinations and autism. As Time reported last month, Trump said in a 2015 interview that he’d never gotten a flu shot.
“I’ve seen a lot of reports that the last flu shot is virtually totally ineffective,” he told radio hosts Opie and Jim Norton. He also said he’d never had the flu. (As president, he apparently has been inoculated; his doctor included a flu vaccination in his report on Trump’s health.)
The point of vaccination is not only to protect the individual getting the shot, but it also builds what’s called “herd immunity,” giving the virus fewer ways to spread through a population. Last year, we created this interactive graphic to show (in rough terms) how increasing the number of people with vaccinations protects vulnerable communities from being infected.
The CDC has been engaging with people on Twitter, explaining what to expect from the flu season and how people should treat the illness. This tweet is from last week.
— CDC (@CDCgov) February 6, 2018
A simple retweet from Trump’s 48-million-follower account would go a long way.