Graphic Monday (…well, Wednesday): Vox’s Donations vs. Disease Graphic  

In this edition of Graphic Monday (delayed due to comprehensive exams induced cave brain), I look at a recent infographic developed by Vox in response to the Ice Bucket ALS challenge social media craze. This also coincides with an interesting debate between Chris Blattman and Kim Yi Dionne / Stéphanie Helleringer regarding whether Ebola is the “Kardashian of diseases”.

The Graphic

Here is the graphic developed by Vox, intended to show how the money raised for various causes does not correlate with the amount of deaths those diseases cause every year.

Donating.vs.Death-Graph.0

The graphic is useful in that it compares lagged disease death data with fundraising dollars in subsequent years. The disease fatality data is from the CDC in 2011, while the fundraising data is all from 2012-2014. Thus, readers might be able to draw some assumption that deaths in a previous year might have encouraged donors in subsequent years.

The Problems

The graphic, when taken out of context and without the trained eye, would appear to depict (as the title implies) where we donate to support disease prevention and treatment vs. the number of deaths in the US caused by those diseases. Yet a closer look reveals that the graphic actually shows the dollars raised for specific fundraisers, similar to the ALS ice bucket challenge. This data is then compared with general population fatality statistics.

Why not include data on all funding for diseases? I understand that the article is meant to show that the ALS ice-bucket hype and other one-shot fundraisers often have a faddish appeal that does not match with the higher fatality rates of less “sexy” diseases. However, the data are misleading.

Especially when we consider one of the fundraisers – Ride to End AIDS – which is conducted annually from Los Angeles to San Francisco (545 miles). This ride, according to the sponsoring organization AIDS/Life Cycle, “raises money and awareness for the HIV and AIDS services of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.” That’s a very specific target community for the funds. The death rates in the graphic for the entire country (7,683) misinform the reader, making him/her think that the proceeds from this fundraiser are targeted toward the entire US population. The estimated AIDS related deaths in LA and San Francisco in 2011 were less than 500 people. We would need information on disease related deaths for the two cities to know whether the fundraising for AIDS/Life Cycle was disproportionate or not.

Finally, the graphic is misleading because it fails to take into account the cost of treatment, palliative care, research, and advocacy for each of these diseases.  These costs are inevitably variable across diseases, contexts, and organizations.  A much clearer comparison is not between disease deaths, but rather the amount of funds that are actually needed to achieve the necessary ends. These ends should be the prevention of human death and making those who are dying more comfortable.  They are achieved through research, prevention, treatment and palliative care.  The graphic tells us nothing about these costs.  Thus, readers are left to assume they are constant across diseases.

Conclusions

In sum, think about the comparisons you are making before you graph it. Can someone make me a pretty graphic showing actual fundraising dollars vs. dollars needed for research, prevention, treatment, and care?

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