The new coronavirus outbreak is dominating headlines. More than 7,700 people have contracted the pneumonia-like illness since it was first reported last month, and more than 170 have died. China has imposed a quarantine for over 50 million people. The U.S. has confirmed five cases, all among travelers, and the State Department has issued advisories that warn against travel to China.
While government institutions mobilize to contain the spread of this new disease, Americans should keep in mind that there is a virus right here in our country that will sicken and kill many more people this year: influenza.
The influenza virus causes the disease commonly known as the flu. This winter, it has already affected at least 15 million Americans and led to 140,000 hospitalizations. Here in Maryland, there have been more than 16,500 cases of the flu and 1,400 hospitalizations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 8,200 Americans have died this flu season. That number is expected to rise much higher before winter ends. During some recent years, nearly eight times that number, up to 61,000 Americans, have died from the flu.
Concerns about coronavirus bring to mind the spread of SARS two decades ago. In the early 2000s, SARS caused worldwide panic as it spread to over 26 countries. But compare the number of deaths from flu to the much-feared SARS, caused by a coronavirus that is related to the one implicated in this new outbreak. In all, SARS resulted in at least 8,000 illnesses and 774 deaths. The flu affects up to 5 million people and kills 650,000 around the world each year.
Much of the concern around SARS was its contagious potential: One person could spread the virus to two to four others. The new coronavirus is believed to have a similar contagion pattern so far. While this necessitates strict adherence to infection control protocols, it’s important to keep in mind that other viruses also have a high potential for rapid spread. One person with measles will spread it to an average of 18 to 20 people, while someone with influenza could spread the virus to someone six feet away through direct contact or by coughing and sneezing.
Unlike for the new coronavirus, there are proven vaccines against the flu and measles. The seasonal flu vaccine is safe and protects against the types of influenza viruses that are predicted to be most common during each season. Most years, the vaccine is effective against up to 60% of influenza strains. The CDC recommends that every person over six months old receive the flu vaccine, unless they have specific medical reasons not to.
Yet vaccination rates remain low. Less than half of Americans receive it, with rates in some recent years dipping to less than 40%. One survey found that one in four report not getting the vaccine because they think they are unlikely to get sick from the flu. The rise of the anti-vaccine movement has also resulted in the highest number of cases of measles in the U.S. since 1992.
As new information is uncovered about the recent coronavirus outbreak, we can take steps to avoid the diseases that we can prevent. It’s not too late to get the flu vaccine. (Make sure to update other vaccines too.) Encourage family, friends and peers to get vaccinated, as well. While influenza is deadliest among children, older adults, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems, no one is protected from the virus without vaccination. Take simple measures, including cleaning communal surfaces; avoiding touching your nose, mouth, and eyes; and washing your hands frequently with soap and warm water.
None of this is meant to make light of emerging diseases. SARS would have been much worse without the vigorous efforts of the international community. Governments need to do much more to understand and control the new coronavirus outbreak. Americans should continue to heed travel advisories and guidance from public health officials.
But we should also call attention to a pathogen that will cause many more illnesses and deaths this year. After all, what will sicken us and our loved ones is much less likely to be the novel virus from afar than the disease that spreads among us already, year after year.
Dr. Leana S. Wen is a Visiting Professor of Health Policy and Management at the George Washington University Milken Institute of Public Health, where she is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Mullan Institute for Health Workforce Equity. She was the former Baltimore City Health Commissioner and has also served as the president of Planned Parenthood. Twitter @DrLeanaWen.