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The claim: The 1976 flu was worse than COVID-19
An outbreak of influenza 44 years ago made a bigger impact than the novel coronavirus, according to a meme posted on Facebook.
The post by SavingtheRepublic.com says the flu was worse than COVID-19, and “nobody even knew about it.”
“It’s time to stop playing their games,” the meme adds, and then in all caps states, “STOP COMPLYING. It’s called CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE.”
SavingtheRepublic.com, an American blog with the pseudonym BMartin1776 that focuses on “the art of political guerrilla warfare," did not respond to USA TODAY's request for comment.
The post shows a graph of monthly deaths per million, with a title that states it goes from January 1851 to July 2020, though the X-axis appears to end in March 2020. The graph shows approximately 1,200 monthly deaths per million during the 1976 flu, compared to about 1,000 monthly deaths per million due to COVID-19.
Where does this information come from?
The graph was created by the Twitter account VoidSurf, as indicated at the bottom of the meme. The account has the same graph — without the commentary — pinned at the top of its Twitter feed.
VoidSurf uses the chart to show the history of death and disease outbreaks in Sweden. The data, which the user claims in an accompanying tweet comes from a number of sources from Statistics Sweden, includes the number of deaths per year in Sweden, in addition to which disease was prevalent during that year.
The two are not directly correlated, however. Although a disease is listed as prevalent for that year, the graph does not reflect how many people died of that particular disease in Sweden — just the total number of deaths for that year.
The Facebook post from SavingtheRepublic.com makes no mention that those statistics are specifically about Sweden. There is an icon of a Swedish flag in a top corner of the chart, but it has been partially covered, making it hard to identify, while other graphics such as a symbol resembling an American "don't tread on me" snake with the number 1776 around it have been given prominence on the meme.
The flu of 1976
The post claims the flu of 1976 was “worse than COVID-19.”
But neither the swine flu of 1976, nor the seasonal flu, resulted in nearly as many infections nor deaths as COVID-19.
In 1976, an outbreak of swine flu at a military base in the United States led to fears of a pandemic, according to a bulletin from the World Health Organization by Dr. Harvey V. Fineberg, the president of the Institute of Medicine in Washington, D.C. Ultimately, about 200 cases of swine flu and one death were reported, according to the Los Angeles Times, with a pandemic never materializing.
Prompted by fears there would be a pandemic, President Gerald Ford wanted to vaccinate everyone in the country, leading to 40 million of about 200 million Americans being immunized. Three people died after receiving the vaccine, although an investigation found no evidence that the vaccine and the deaths were causally related, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Of course, there are strains of seasonal influenza that cause deaths every year. Between 1976 and 1977, there were 2,766 influenza-associated deaths in the United States. The influenza strains B and A(H3N2) were prominent that year, according to the CDC. But that number of influenza-associated deaths in 1976 is not unique from other years. In fact, it is below the average of 6,309 influenza-associated deaths.
In the late 1960s in Sweden, there were sporadic cases of the new A(H3N2) influenza at first, then a more serious epidemic in which about 300,000 to 400,000 people were infected and a few hundred died, according to a peer-reviewed article that describes 200 years of influenza in Sweden from the British Medical Journal. That article does not bring up a specific type of influenza in 1976 and does not give a number of influenza cases and deaths from that year.
Although no specific data could be found with the numbers of influenza cases and deaths in Sweden from 1976, there were two strains reported to the CDC between February and March 1976: the influenza A virus and influenza B virus, according to the CDC.
Coronavirus impacts in US, globally
To compare, a total of 16,519,668 cases and 302,992 deaths from COVID-19 have been reported in the United States as of Dec. 17, according to the CDC.
Globally, 74,378,599 cases and 1,652,235 deaths have been reported, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.
In Sweden, coronavirus hit the nation hard in the early part of the year, peaking in April, with 10,458 registered deaths that month, though not all were from COVID-19. As of Dec. 17, there have been a total of 348,585 COVID-19 cases in Sweden, with 7,802 deaths, according to the World Health Organization.
“We have to go as far back as December 1993 to find a higher number of deaths during one month, when the death toll was 11,057. In 1993, there were 97,008 deaths in total, which was the highest number of deaths in a year since 1918 when the flu pandemic peaked,” says Tomas Johansson, statistician at Statistics Sweden’s Population and Economic Welfare unit, in a press release.
Since the peak, the number of deaths has fallen so dramatically in Sweden that the overall mortality rates for the year may end up being normal, though life expectancy, which has famously steadily increased since the 1900s in Sweden, is expected to drop.
Even so, 1976 does not stand out in Swedish history as a comparison point. And if the graph only goes until March as the axis suggests, the graph stops before the relevant data points from the current pandemic.
Our ruling: False
We rate this claim as false, based on our research. The 1976 flu season, which saw very few deaths, was not worst than COVID-19 in America or Sweden. The data in the graph is presented in an out-of-context way to suggest its universal when it in fact reports only on Sweden and is not an official graph but one created by a Twitter user. The author of the post uses that graph from Sweden to claim that the flu of 1976 was worse than COVID-19, but that is inaccurate.
Our fact-check sources:
World Health Organization - Swine flu of 1976: lessons from the past
Los Angeles Times - Swine flu ‘debacle’ of 1976 is recalled
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - Reflections on the 1976 Swine Flu Vaccination Program
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - CDC COVID Data Tracker
Johns Hopkins University and Medicine Coronavirus Research Center - COVID-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins
Statistics Sweden - April was the month with the highest mortality rate in more than 20 years
Statistics Sweden - Excess mortality in Sweden is followed by mortality deficit
Statistics Sweden - Projection: COVID-19 leads to lower life expectancy in Sweden in 2020
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - Influenza Surveillance
World Health Organization - Sweden: WHO Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Dashboard
British Medical Journal - The ghost of pandemics past: revisiting two centuries of influenza in Sweden
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - Estimates of Deaths Associated with Seasonal Influenza
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: COVID-19 is far worse than the 1976 flu outbreaks