Coronavirus Is Bad, But Let’s Not Forget About Flu
Feb 14, 2020
A lot of people are very concerned about the new novel coronavirus (now named COVID-19), and understandably so. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 47,000 cases have been reported and more than 1,300 people have died as of mid-February, mostly in China, It’s a big deal. But it’s not the only virus we should be worried about.
While the situation with COVID-19 is rapidly evolving, the bigger threat right now to Americans is influenza (flu), a virus that hospitalizes and kills thousands of people every year.
Coronavirus Fears Are Understandable But the Dangers of the Flu Are Often Underestimated
There’s no doubt that COVID-19 is cause for concern, but it should also be put into perspective. According to the CDC, for the general American public, who are unlikely to be exposed to this virus, the immediate health risk from COVID-19 is considered low at this time. As of February 12, 2020, the CDC reported there were only 14 cases of the new coronavirus in the U.S.; however, there were more than 26 million cases of flu in our country so far this season. And while, thankfully, no deaths from COVID-19 have been reported in the United States yet, at least 14,000 people in the U.S. have died from the flu (including 92 children) between October 1, 2019 and February 8, 2020 — and the season is not over yet.
If you think about it, in just four months, the flu has killed the equivalent of a small town.
There‘s been no doubt that it’s been a rough flu season so far, especially for children and young adults, but that isn’t so unusual. Last flu season, the CDC estimated there were 35.5 million cases of flu, and about 490,000 hospitalizations and 34,200 deaths due to flu. The season year before that, there were an estimated 45 million cases of flu, 810,000 hospitalizations and 61,000 deaths.
While the flu vaccine isn’t perfect, getting vaccinated can significantly lower your chances of being hospitalized or dying from the flu. Yet, only half of Americans were vaccinated last season.
Concerns over the new coronavirus are reasonable. But we shouldn’t discount what, right now, is a much bigger risk. The flu is not just a bad cold or stomach bug. It hurts a lot of people, especially those at high risk for serious flu complications including older adults, pregnant women, young children, and those with heart disease, asthma or diabetes. Flu needs to be taken seriously.
Why We’re Scared of Some Diseases, But Shrug Off Others
Currently, the overwhelming majority of people in the U.S. are much more likely to get seriously ill from the flu than they are from COVID-19. So why are people worried about the new virus, yet shrug off the flu?
Psychologists say this is because we tend to be more afraid of novel (new/original) threats than more familiar ones. For example, a lot of people are terrified of flying, but are perfectly calm on a road trip — despite the statistics showing air travel is far safer than riding in a car. Many people don’t fly nearly as often as they drive, so it feels like a bigger threat, even though it’s not.
Flu season happens every year. A lot of people have had it and survived – or someone close to them has. It feels familiar, and familiar isn’t as scary.
COVID-19, on the other hand, is something new. We don’t yet know how many people will be affected or how deadly it can be. Not knowing is nerve-wracking, so we perceive the virus to be a bigger threat, despite the real risk being low.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t be on our guard about COVID-19. Feeling like we’re at risk for something can motivate us to take steps to protect ourselves.
Protecting Against Flu Can Help Prevent Coronavirus Too
The CDC recommends everyone over the age of 6 months, including pregnant women, get the flu vaccine every season.
In addition to getting the flu vaccine, there are other things we can do to protect ourselves against the flu, such as:
- Washing our hands frequently with soap and water, or using alcohol-based hand sanitizer when soap and water aren’t available.
- Avoiding people who are actively sick (sneezing and coughing).
- Disinfecting common surfaces like doorknobs, airplane trays, or hotel room remotes.
- Limiting how much you touch your face, especially your eyes, nose or mouth.
- Taking antiviral medications as soon as you start feeling sick (if prescribed), especially if you are at high risk of serious flu illness.
Because the COVID-19 likely spreads in a similar way to the flu, taking most of these precautions can also help protect us against the new coronavirus.
There’s no telling how big of an impact COVID-19 will have in the U.S., but we already know the kind of harm that is caused by the flu every year. Protect yourself and your family by getting vaccinated today. It’s not too late.
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