A deadly virus has killed thousands and infected millions in the United States this season. But it’s not the virus making headlines.
While the new coronavirus, which began in China last month and has spread to at least 20 other countries, is reaching the level of an epidemic, its infection and mortality rates do not come close to that of an older virus: influenza.
In the US alone at least 19 million cases of influenza have been reported this season, as well as 10,000 flu-related deaths, according to the latest statistics from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In comparison, across the world coronavirus has killed 564 people and infected around 28,200.
The difference in alarm between the two viruses stems from the novelty of corona and the medical community’s uncertainty about the effect of the outbreak.
“It’s entirely new and there are a lot of unknowns, which, naturally, raise concerns, even scaring people to the point of anxiety and panic. And we know that worry and anxiety is contagious,” said Dr. Nina Radcliff, a board-certified anesthesiologist based in New Jersey.
In contrast, the medical community can “predict pretty accurately what the range of the mortality is and the hospitalizations” for the influenza virus every year, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“Despite the morbidity and mortality with influenza, there’s a certainty…of seasonal flu,” said Dr. Fauci, who added that the issue with coronavirus is its unknown aspects, in a White House press conference on Friday.
While a vaccination and antiviral medications for treatment are available for influenza, no vaccination or treatment are in place for the coronavirus.
Despite media reports of “breakthrough drugs” being discovered to treat people with the new coronavirus, the World Health Organization (WHO) played down those reports on Wednesday.
“There are no known effective therapeutics against this 2019-nCoV [virus],” said WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic.
Influenza and coronavirus are spread through direct or indirect contact, meaning they can be transmitted via physical touch between humans, and can also be contracted by touching a surface that an infected person has contaminated with the virus.
The WHO and Radcliff recommend the flu vaccination as a preventative measure against influenza.
“It’s not 100 percent, but it remains the most effective weapon we have. Also if you do get the flu after getting the flu shot, research shows that you are less likely to be hospitalized, have a complication or die from it,” said Radcliff.
Preventive measures recommended by the World Health Organization for coronavirus include:
- Frequently clean hands by using alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.
- When coughing and sneezing, cover mouth and nose with flexed elbow or tissue – throw tissue away immediately and wash hands.
- Avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever and cough.
- If you have a fever, cough, and difficulty breathing seek medical care early and share previous travel history with your health care provider.
- When visiting live markets in areas currently experiencing cases of novel coronavirus, avoid direct unprotected contact with live animals and surfaces in contact with animals.
- The consumption of raw or undercooked animal products should be avoided. Raw meat, milk or animal organs should be handled with care, to avoid cross-contamination with uncooked foods, as per good food safety practices.
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