As a sometime science writer, I have to say we bear some responsibility for the context in which this datum is "surprising."Like all journalists, we're drawn to what is new, unpredictable, counterintuitive: "dog bites man," that's news. And we're drawn to stories with "pegs" that fit into other current or simmering stories. HIV/AIDS was "new," and has also tied into gay liberation, culture wars, Reagan-era policies, Africa's woes, etc.Over time, the numbers and "connectivity" or "thematic relevance" of stories can overshadow dull details like the numbers of people affected.Consider women's perception of their risk of breast and ovarian cancer vs. heart disease. The former are specific to women, have been perceived as "neglected" by the Male Medical Establishment, and tie into psychological/sexual self-image in a way that heart disease doesn't. So many women are surprised to learn that the latter is in a fact a bigger risk.Science and medical writers have the same mental quirks as everyone else in terms of what gets our attention. But like scientists, we should also have a heightened respect for quantitative data and what it can tell us -- even when what it tells us is a "same old same old" that makes a duller pitch in story conferences.
I don't know, but I imagine that the death rate is high because it looks like a bazillion other things until it fails to respond to the drug of last or penultimate resort. In other words, it might be we can't test every sick person who we can't exclude from possibly having it, and neither do we want to treat all of them prophylactically as if they do, because we want to never use those drugs unless absolutely necessary, so that resistance against them will not emerge so soon. If the incidence of deaths due to cancer isn't surprising now, I suppose it's because we're well used to the idea that it's a tough problem to solve. Every new kind of tough comes as a surprise. Maybe that's the downside of our can-do spirit showing.
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