As evidence mounts, will Boyles correct debunked leprosy falsehood?


National news reports debunking the false claim aired on 630 KHOW-AM host Peter Boyles' show that "7,000 cases of leprosy" occurred in the United States recently in three years prompt Colorado Media Matters to ask again: Will Boyles acknowledge and correct the false statement made on his program?

Major media reports debunking the falsehood broadcast by 630 KHOW-AM host Peter Boyles and his guest, Dr. Patricia Doyle, that the United States had experienced "7,000 cases of leprosy" in three years recently due to illegal immigration prompt the question: Will Boyles acknowledge the falsehood and correct it for his listeners?

On September 25, 2006, Colorado Media Matters cited figures from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to note the distortion of leprosy statistics on Boyles' September 20, 2006, broadcast. During a discussion about illegal immigrants "from around the world" who are coming to the United States "with diseases," Boyles allowed Doyle to claim without challenge that "[i]n three years, recently" the United States has "had 7,000 cases" of the disease. On the April 14, 2005, broadcast of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight, reporter Christine Romans had made a similar distortion, stating, "There have been 7,000" cases of leprosy in the U.S. "in the past three years." As Media Matters for America noted, Romans repeated the faulty figure on Dobbs' May 7, 2007, show, and he defended her citation, telling Romans, "I stand 100 percent behind what you said."

Following a May 6 60 Minutes profile of Dobbs that questioned the veracity of the leprosy statistics reported on his show, David Leonhardt of The New York Times on May 30 further debunked the claims about cases of leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease, in his "Economix" column.

Leonhardt stated that he "called James L. Krahenbuhl, the director of the National Hansen's Disease Program, an arm of the federal government." Based on his conversation with Krahenbuhl, Leonhardt concluded that "the official leprosy statistics do show about 7,000 diagnosed cases -- but that's over the last 30 years, not the last three." (emphasis in original) Leonhardt continued:

The peak year was 1983, when there were 456 cases. After that, reported cases dropped steadily, falling to just 76 in 2000. Last year, there were 137.

"It is not a public health problem -- that's the bottom line," Mr. Krahenbuhl told me. "You've got a country of 300 million people. This is not something for the public to get alarmed about." Much about the disease remains unknown, but researchers think people get it through prolonged close contact with someone who already has it.

What about the increase over the last six years, to 137 cases from 76? Is that significant?

"No," Mr. Krahenbuhl said. It could be a statistical fluctuation, or it could be a result of better data collection in recent years. In any event, the 137 reported cases last year were fewer than in any year from 1975 to 1996.

Colorado Media Matters pointed out again on May 9 that government statistics contradict the "7,000 cases" claim. In fact, according to HHS, fewer than 200 cases of leprosy have been reported in the United States each year since 1995. The HHS website notes:

In the U.S., there are approximately 6,500 cases on the National Hansen's Disease Program Registry. This includes all cases reported since the registry began and who are still living.

Furthermore, a 2005 HHS graph showing reported new leprosy cases in the United States since 1976 indicated that the annual number of new cases has remained below 200 since 1995. The graph shows a total of 7,029 reported leprosy cases in the U.S. from 1976 through 2005.

Similarly, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated in a June 16, 2006, report ("Summary of Notifiable Diseases -- United States, 2004") that "[t]he number of reported cases of Hansen disease (HD) in the United States peaked at 361 in 1985 and has declined since 1988."

As of his May 30 broadcast, Boyles had yet to correct the false claim made on his show regarding the leprosy statistics.

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