Jan 29, 2020

Why we panic about coronavirus, but not the flu

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

If you’re freaking out about coronavirus but you didn’t get a flu shot, you’ve got it backwards.

The big picture: A novel outbreak will always command more attention than a common illness, and the coronavirus is a serious health threat. But our newfound hyper-vigilance about infections might be more helpful if we could redirect some of it toward influenza — a significantly deadlier virus that strikes every year.

By the numbers: This new strain of coronavirus has killed 132 people so far, all of them in China. More than 6,000 total cases have been reported worldwide, although experts believe that total is underestimated.

  • By comparison, this year's flu season has killed 8,200 people, with at least 15 million cases — and that's just in the U.S.

Between the lines: James Lawler, an infectious disease physician at the University of Nebraska, said pandemic viruses like the coronavirus cause more anxiety because, unlike the flu, there are not any initial countermeasures like vaccines, antivirals, diagnostic testing and monitoring systems.

  • Those things exist for the flu, yet vaccination rates are low.
  • "The flu is just not as new and headline-grabbing because we see it every year," said Emily Martin, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan.

The bottom line: The coronavirus has upended the lives of many Chinese citizens, and it warrants a strong public-health response. It's just important to remember that if you're concerned about viruses, a lot of those deaths every year are preventable.

  • "When we think about the relative danger of this new coronavirus and influenza ... coronavirus will be a blip on the horizon in comparison," William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University, told Kaiser Health News.

Go deeper

Coronavirus updates: CDC monitoring 4 presumptive positive cases in western U.S.

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins, the CDC, and China's Health Ministry. Note: China numbers are for the mainland only and U.S. numbers include repatriated citizens.

State public health authorities are monitoring four new presumptive positive cases of the novel coronavirus as of late Friday evening, per the CDC. California is evaluating a second possible instance of community spread as Oregon announced its first possible case. Washington state has two presumptive cases, only one of which is likely travel-related.

The big picture: COVID-19 has killed more than 2,900 people and infected more than 85,000 others in over 60 countries and territories outside the epicenter in mainland China. The number of new cases reported outside China now exceed those inside the country.

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More than 100 children have died from the flu so far this season

Influenza vaccine. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

105 children have reportedly died in the U.S. from the flu, the highest so far this season, per data released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The big picture: Health officials typically treat a high rate of seniors, a vulnerable population during flu season, but this year, children and young adults have been more susceptible.

Go deeperArrowFeb 21, 2020 - Health

Brace yourself for a coronavirus outbreak

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Public-health officials’ warnings about the coronavirus are sounding increasingly urgent, with one top CDC official asking the public yesterday "to prepare for the expectation that this might be bad."

Reality check: Other administration officials, including President Trump himself, were more subdued in their assessments. But underneath those tonal differences, the reality of the coronavirus is the same: It spreads quickly and has already spread to many countries, making it likely to start spreading here, too.

Go deeperArrowFeb 26, 2020 - Health