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VERIFY: No, there aren't major disease outbreaks 'every election year'

A viral claim about disease outbreaks during election years got a number of facts wrong.

The claim that “every election year has a disease” has been popping up on social media for a couple of weeks now as the world grapples with the spread of coronavirus. 

It got another burst of attention recently when a version of the same meme was supposedly spotted on a whiteboard alongside other claims “from a doctor’s office.”

THE QUESTION

Has there been a disease outbreak in every election year since 2004? Are the other coronavirus facts real?

THE ANSWER

No, these claims are misleading at best and flat out untrue at worst.

WHAT WE FOUND

Both of these claims can be found in tweets dating back to late February nearly word for word. The left part of the board in the newest iteration is identical to this tweet from Feb. 27, with an incomplete World Health Organization link. The right side of the board is verbatim, including the hashtags, of this Feb. 26 tweet from YourVoice America host Bill Mitchell.

So if a doctor did write this on their office’s whiteboard, they didn’t come up with the text themselves. But what about the actual claims?

The left side of the board uses some generous rounding and cherry picking to get the data it wants.

The World Health Organization said SARS emerged in 2002 and the global epidemic ended in 2003. There would have been few cases during the 2004 election year. 

The Center for Disease Control said the bulk of the swine flu pandemic occurred in 2009, although it didn’t end until April 2010. Nonetheless, it was over well before the general election began that Fall. 

As for Ebola, there was a major outbreak in 2014 like the claim states, according to the WHO, but carried on well past the election that year and into 2016. The WHO reports the Zika virus outbreak began in 2015 and continued into 2016.

Additionally, several of these outbreaks had little impact in the United States despite the claim connecting each one to the American midterm and presidential election cycle. The 2018 Ebola outbreak, which is still ongoing, has occurred within the Democratic Republic of the Congo. While the MERS outbreak began in 2012, the CDC says there have only been two cases of MERS ever reported in the U.S. and both were in May of 2014 in people who had traveled to Saudi Arabia, a country where the outbreak has occurred.

Most egregious on that list is the inclusion of avian flu in 2008. The most well-known outbreaks of avian flu were in 1997 when it was first detected in humans and in 2003 when it emerged in humans for the first time since 1997, according to the WHO and the CDC. If anything, 2008 was a year in which the virus most associated with avian flu, H5N1, was on the decline. A United Nations document from 2008 stated, “Only eleven outbreaks/cases of HPAI (H5N1) were reported worldwide in June 2008 in five countries (China, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan and Viet Nam). This compares with 65 outbreaks in June 2006 and 55 in June 2007.”

So the claims on the left side of the board don’t hold much weight. What about the right side?

Scientists call the rate a virus spreads its reproductive number -- that appears to be what the claim refers to when it says “contagion factor.” The WHO said earlier this month the reproductive number for COVID-19 is 2-2.5, higher than that of influenza. A WHO document from 2003 put the number for SARS in the range of 2-4. A CDC study on measles’ reproductive number found “more than 20 different R0 values (range 5.4–18) were reported for measles in a variety of study areas and periods.”

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There is no “cure” yet for COVID-19 as the claim suggests, however many patients do recover on their own. The WHO hasn’t released a recovery rate -- in general or by age -- at this point, but a recent situation report said that 80% of cases are mild or asymptomatic. It can be assumed that most, if not all, such cases have led to a recovery.

It isn’t true that the spread is leveling off either. While the WHO’s March 9 situation report shows that the spread in China and South Korea are on the decline, spread in many other countries around the world is on the rise. Daily cases are on the rise in several European countries, particularly Italy where there were more than 1,000 new cases in the March 9 report, and in the U.S. While the WHO doesn’t show the newest American cases, the CDC does.

Therefore, this image is full of misleading and false information. The outbreak of illnesses worldwide have nothing to do with American elections and even the claims on the right are slightly off in some places and completely inaccurate in others.

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