Fact check: Comparison between COVID-19 and cancer death rate misleading
The claim: Number of cancer deaths is three times COVID-19 death rate
Since its emergence in late 2019, the novel coronavirus has been compared to tuberculosis, the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic and the 2009 swine flu pandemic by social media users in an attempt to downplay the severity of the pandemic.
The latest such claim: Cancer is far worse than COVID-19.
“600,00 Americans die each year from Cancer. That’s 3x the Covid death rate,” alleges a Dec. 29 tweet shared on Facebook on Jan. 2.
Alluding to the mask mandates and other interventions in place to stop the spread of COVID-19, the tweet further claims cancer has not received a proportionate public health response.
“I don’t see them mandating healthy living, banning cigarettes or removing toxins from our beauty products & food… but carry on.”
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USA TODAY has reached out to the Facebook user for comment but was unable to reach the Twitter user.
While there’s no mistaking cancer is a terrible disease, comparing it to COVID-19 is flawed on a number of levels, experts say.
Cancer and COVID-19 deaths not entirely comparable
Comparing cancer and COVID-19 deaths is a bit more complex than simply eyeballing raw numbers, said Cheryl Healton, dean of New York University’s School of Global Public Health.
“The way to compare the two is to look at (the number of deaths) over 12 months, preferably the same 12 months,” she told USA TODAY.
At the time the tweet was shared on Jan. 2, there had been 360,888 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. in the nine months since the pandemic was declared a national emergency in mid-March 2020. The U.S. averages about 600,000 cancer deaths per year, so roughly 450,000 in a given nine-month span.
That’s far from the post’s claim that cancer deaths are three times higher.
A look back at the first full year of the pandemic yields similar results. The 12 months beginning in mid-March 2020 left about 540,000 Americans dead, nearly equal to the annual average of 600,000 cancer deaths.
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Cancer and COVID-19 do share similarities when it comes to age distribution – both are rarer in children, less rare among the middle-aged and more common in older adults – but attempts at a comparison fall short when considering growth, Healton said.
COVID-19 cases and deaths grew exponentially as the pandemic spread, while cancer deaths have been declining steadily for the past 30 years.
The frequency of all types of cancer dropped an estimated 31% from 1991 to 2018, according to the American Cancer Society. It attributes the drop to advances in earlier detection and medical treatment but also due in large part to less people smoking, the main driving force of cancer deaths in the 20th century.
This downward trend is likely to continue, according to Healton.
It’s also important to note the number of COVID-19 deaths, and any calculated rate, is specific to a country and depends on its public health strategies. In New Zealand, which enforced a national lockdown, stringent contact tracing and other measures early in the pandemic, there were only 26 recorded deaths as of May 19.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, India’s overwhelming surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths – over 4,500 deaths on May 19, the highest daily death toll experienced by any country – has been linked to the lifting of lockdowns and social distancing restrictions after the country began its vaccine rollout in January.
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Our ruling: False
Based on our research, we rate the claim that the cancer death rate is three times that of COVID-19 FALSE. It’s unclear what data the original author of the tweet used, but at the time it was published, the frequency of COVID-19 deaths was close to that of cancer deaths. Public health experts say there are also key differences that invalidate the comparison between cancer and COVID-19, namely COVID-19 being an exponentially infectious disease and cancer deaths being on the decline thanks to fewer people smoking and advances in screening and medical treatments.
Our fact-check sources:
- USA TODAY, Aug. 31, 2020, Fact check: Tuberculosis is more dangerous than COVID-19, but context matters
- USA TODAY, Aug. 25, 2020, Fact check: COVID-19 is deadlier than the 1918 Spanish flu and seasonal influenza
- USA TODAY, April 25, 2020, Fact check: Was second wave of Spanish flu worse? Did it kill at least 20 million people?
- USA TODAY, Aug. 16, 2020, Fact check: 2009 swine flu spread rapidly, but COVID-19 is more deadly
- Cheryl Healton, May 14, phone interview with USA TODAY
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed May 18, COVID Data Tracker
- The White House, Feb. 24, Notice on the Continuation of the National Emergency Concerning the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Pandemic
- National Cancer Institute, Sept. 25, 2020, Cancer Statistics
- American Cancer Society, Jan. 12, Facts & Figures 2021 Reports Another Record-Breaking 1-Year Drop in Cancer Deaths
- The World Health Organization, accessed May 19, WHO Coronavirus (COVID-19) Dashboard – New Zealand
- Associated Press, May 19, India sets global record for daily coronavirus deaths
- Washington Post, April 28, How did the covid-19 outbreak in India get so bad?
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Our fact check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.