When Bad Stats Mean Good Things

As someone who has to pay attention to blood/infectious disease issues for work, I’m on a couple email lists that report current issues. I got one of these this week that really caught my eye, with a headline that stated that the incidence of hemophilia appears to be going up.

Since hemophilia is a genetic disorder, I was curious why this would be. Clicking on the article, I was surprised to find that the researchers actually believe this is a positive development caused by getting a better handle on HIV and infectious disease standards. For those unfamiliar with hemophilia, it’s a disorder that impacts your blood’s ability to clot. Though in some rare cases women can some forms of it, the disorder is almost exclusively found in men. Men with this require blood transfusions frequently, and thus were impacted when HIV in the 80s before blood and blood donors were screened with the standards we use today. Ryan White, whose case prompted many of the legal protections we have for people diagnosed with HIV today, was one such case. The first person I knew who had HIV (Norm Cataract) was another such case. He was a friend of my parents and dedicated the last few years of his life to giving public talks about how HIV was acquired and trying to reduce fear. It’s hard to remember now, but in the late 80s there was a lot of misinformation about HIV floating around, and with no treatment available it was met with a lot of hostility. I’ve never forgotten Norm’s bravery in fighting for understanding and right information. It’s a shame he didn’t live long enough to see HIV become more manageable disease.

Anyway, now that HIV is more manageable, the blood supply is cleaner, and hemophilia is a less risky disease. The less risky it is, the more likely hemophiliacs are to actually live and have children, which given the genetic nature of the disease means there will be more hemophiliacs. In other words, despite the negative connotations of “rates going up”, this is all a good thing.

A couple other examples of “bad” stats hiding good things:

  • More wounded veterans. Previously more men died on the battlefield or shortly thereafter due to a lack of medical care in the field, now 90% of men wounded in battle survive.
  • Smoking rates (possibly). Working in a cancer hospital, I have a lot of coworkers who (pretty understandably) dislike smokers. I like to remind them that smoking rates are very high among recovering addicts, so we don’t always know if the smoking was a bad choice or a good choice. Smoking isn’t healthy, but I think we can all agree it’s better than heroin.

I don’t have a clever name for this, but I’d be open to suggestions!

One thought on “When Bad Stats Mean Good Things

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