No, not every U.S. election year has had a disease outbreak and COVID-19 transmissibility is unconfirmed

CLAIM
"Every election year has a disease; coronavirus has a contagion factor of 2"

SOURCE: , , 2 Mar. 2020  

DETAILS
Inaccurate: Not every election year in the U.S. has been associated with a disease outbreak.
Misleading: The transmissibility of COVID-19, represented by its “reproduction number”, ranges from around 2 to more than 6 in various reports. The claim gives the false impression that the transmissibility of the coronavirus has already been confirmed.
KEY TAKE AWAY
Every year in the U.S. is an election year, if taking into account state and Congressional elections as well as presidential elections. Since disease outbreaks have not occurred every year, it follows that not every election year has been associated with a disease outbreak as implied by the claim. In addition, the transmissibility of the coronavirus, represented by the “basic reproduction number”, is still under study. Currently, the basic reproduction numbers reported for the virus causing COVID-19 range between around 2 to more than 6.

FULL CLAIM: "Every election year has a disease; coronavirus has a contagion factor of 2; coronavirus has a cure rate of 99.7% for those under 50 it infects"

REVIEW


These claims were published on Facebook in early March 2020 and circulated in the form of a meme or photo, with accompanying captions claiming that this information was provided at the office of a doctor or chiropractor. These claims have been viewed more than 3 million times on Facebook.

The claim that “every election year has a disease” is inaccurate and imprecise. The images shared on Facebook do not specify which elections they are referring to, but if one counts elections at both the state and federal levels, every year@ is an election year in the U.S. Since disease outbreaks have not occurred every year, it follows that not every election year has been associated with a disease outbreak as implied by the claim.

Furthermore, the claim attributes the wrong years for several of the listed diseases. The correct timeline for the emergence and outbreaks of the listed diseases is provided below:

  • Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), 2004: The global outbreak occurred between November 2002 to July 2003, not 2004 as claimed. A re-emergence of SARS did take place in December 2004 and was limited only to China, specifically nine cases in Beijing and the province of Anhui.
  • Avian influenza, 2008: There are several strains of avian influenza, and it is not clear which one the image refers to. However, the strain of concern from a public health standpoint due to its high mortality rate is H5N1. This strain was first reported to infect humans in 1997, but it is very rare. No outbreak of H5N1 or any other avian influenza occurred in humans in 2008.
  • Swine flu, 2010: The first case of swine flu was detected in April 2009, and a pandemic declared in June 2009, which officially officially ended in August 2010.
  • Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), 2012: The first case was reported in 2012, but the largest number of cases in any given year to date was recorded in 2014, as this summary by the World Health Organization (WHO) shows.
  • Ebola, 2014 and 2018: The first case of human Ebola infection was recorded in 1976. An Ebola outbreak indeed began in 2014 and ended in 2016, with several thousand suspected and confirmed cases reported in West Africa and four confirmed cases in the U.S. In 2018, another Ebola outbreak was declared in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and is still ongoing. This WHO website shows the chronology of previous Ebola outbreaks.
  • Zika, 2016: The first human case of Zika infection was recorded in 1952. Outbreaks occurred in French Polynesia between 2013 and 2014. In March 2015, another outbreak began in Brazil and later spread to other countries in South and North America. The WHO declared Zika a Public Health Emergency of International Concern# from February 2016 to November 2016.
  • Coronavirus, 2020: The first cluster of COVID-19 cases was reported on 31 December 2019 and traced to a market in Wuhan, China. A report by the WHO on 5 March 2020 states that more than 95,000 cases have now been confirmed in 85 countries, with the majority occurring in China (80,565 confirmed cases).

The images also contain the claim that the “coronavirus has a contagion factor of 2”. The term “contagion factor” is not part of the scientific vocabulary, but it appears to refer to the reproduction number (R0)—a measure of how quickly an infection could spread through a community. Joseph Eisenberg, professor and chair of epidemiology at the University of Michigan, explains the concept of R0 in this article published in The Conversation:

[R0] represents an important concept in epidemiology and is a crucial part of public health planning during an outbreak, like the current coronavirus epidemic spreading outward from China. […]

The basic reproduction number represents the maximum epidemic potential of a pathogen. It describes what would happen if an infectious person were to enter a fully susceptible community, and therefore is an estimate based on an idealized scenario.

However, the reproduction number is not static. As Eisenberg goes on to explain:

The effective reproduction number depends on the population’s current susceptibility. This measure of transmission potential is likely lower than the basic reproduction number, based on factors like whether some of the people are vaccinated against the disease, or whether some people have immunity due to prior exposure with the pathogen. Therefore, the effective R0 changes over time and is an estimate based on a more realistic situation within the population.

It’s important to realize that both the basic and effective R0 are situation-dependent. It’s affected by the properties of the pathogen, such as how infectious it is. It’s affected by the host population—for instance, how susceptible people are due to nutritional status or other illnesses that may compromise one’s immune system. And it’s affected by the environment, including things like demographics, socioeconomic and climatic factors.

The transmissibility of COVID-19 is still being studied by scientists. A review published on 13 February 2020 shows that the basic reproduction number currently ranges from approximately 2 to 6.5[1]. The number indicates the number of individuals in a susceptible population expected to become infected by a single infected individual. Therefore the claim that “coronavirus has a contagion factor of 2” gives a false and misleading impression that the transmissibility of the new coronavirus has already been confirmed.

The claim that “coronavirus has a cure rate of 99.7% for those under [age] 50 [that] it infects” is misleading. As Lead Stories reported, there is no cure for the coronavirus yet, although many people do recover from it. A report by the Chinese Centers for Disease Control showed that case fatality rate for 44,672 confirmed cases through 11 February 2020 was 2.3%. This rate stood at 0.4% for those aged 40-49 and trended downwards for younger patients.

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Snopes, Lead Stories, and Reuters fact-checked identical or related claims. Snopes stated that the claim that “a major disease outbreak occurred in “every election year” since 2004” is false. Lead Stories stated that “It is not known whether novel coronavirus has a survival rate of 99.7%”, while Reuters labeled the claim that “every election year has a disease” as partly false.

NOTES

@: U.S. Congressional elections (which are federal level elections) occur every two years, but special elections can be held in any year to fill unexpected vacancies. Hence, every year is either a planned or potential election year at the federal level. The image does not specify whether it is referring to federal or state elections, so if one counts state elections as well, then every year in the U.S. is always an election year for at least some states.

#: See this article in The Conversation for an explanation of what defines a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

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Health Feedback has produced a number of other claim reviews on COVID-19. You can view them here.

REFERENCES

     

Published on: 07 Mar 2020 | Editor:

Health Feedback is a non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to science education. Our reviews are crowdsourced directly from a community of scientists with relevant expertise. We strive to explain whether and why information is or is not consistent with the science and to help readers know which news to trust.
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