We Should Panic about the Flu – Not the Coronavirus
By Glynn Cosker
Managing Editor, EDM Digest
Amid the growing concern surrounding the latest coronavirus, it’s important to put the newly recognized illness into perspective. Similar viruses affect millions of people – and kill tens of thousands – each and every year.
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The novel coronavirus – officially dubbed 2019-nCoV by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – presents with fever, cough, runny nose, sore throat, headache and shortness of breath. As of Jan. 29, there are 6,152 cases of 2019-nCoV in the world and 132 subsequent fatalities.
A majority of the cases (98.4 percent) – and all of the deaths – have occurred in China. Additionally, most of the patients who have died from the infection were older than 60 and had preexisting conditions.
As with most viruses that originate outside America, the public’s interest is only piqued when the virus spreads to America. That is what’s happening now.
Medical Face Masks Selling Out
Currently, there are only five confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the United States; all of these patients picked up the illness on recent trips to China. Additionally, the CDC reports, “no person-to-person spread has been detected” in the United States. That hasn’t stopped people from rushing to their nearest emergency room or clinic if they have any of the coronavirus’s symptoms.
"Don’t panic unless you’re paid to panic,” Brandon Brown, an epidemiologist, told Kaiser Health News. “Public health workers should be on the lookout. The government should be ready to provide resources. ... But for everyone else: Breathe.” That’s good advice to avoid a major overreaction.
Media Coverage of 2019-nCoV
The media’s portrayal of 2019-nCoV isn’t helping the situation. A lot of press outlets are portraying the coronavirus as if it were the bubonic plague. There are online maps "tracking the coronavirus in 'real time'" and provocative headlines with the word epidemic splashed everywhere. Other headlines report on the fact that there is no vaccine or antiviral drug treatment for 2019-nCoV.
The Coronavirus in Context
Let’s put the new coronavirus into context by using a much more prevalent and deadly virus – one that has an effective vaccine (which most people don’t utilize) along with an antiviral drug treatment.
The CDC reports an estimate of nine million to 45 million influenza cases in the United States since 2010, with 12,000 to 61,000 deaths each year. More than 80,000 people died from the flu in the 2017-18 U.S. flu season alone; the current flu season has killed 8,200 people in the United States so far. Yet you’ll find those precautionary statistics on the 10th page of your Google search for “deadly virus affecting Americans.” The first page is all about the 2019-nCoV coronavirus.
"The flu is just not as new and headline-grabbing because we see it every year," said University of Michigan epidemiologist Emily Martin.
SARS and MERS
This is not the first time this story has played out. In 2003, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) – also a coronavirus – emerged in China and ended that same year with 8,096 global cases and 774 deaths. Eighty-seven percent of those SARS cases and deaths occurred in China. There were only 27 cases of SARS in the U.S. with zero deaths.
More recently, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) – another coronavirus – emerged in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Since that time, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports 2,494 global cases and 858 deaths. Only two patients in the U.S. ever tested positive for MERS – and both patients had recently traveled to the affected area.
Ebola ‘Outbreak’ in the US
SARS and MERS each caused panic in the United States and the latest coronavirus is repeating the trend. However, that was nothing compared to the Ebola virus disease outbreak from 2013 to 2016 which peaked in 2014. Similar statistics accompanied this much more dangerous and deadly hemorrhagic fever virus that originated in Africa. WHO estimates 28,646 worldwide Ebola cases during the outbreak – with 28,639 of those cases contained to Africa. There were four cases in the United States, but we witnessed 24-hour, nonstop news coverage of the “U.S. Ebola outbreak.”
Any death from any disease is a tragedy. One should never forget or undermine that fact, of course. However, the jury is still out on whether or not the “panic” caused by the latest virus is appropriate.
Deadly Complications of Viruses
In summary, here are some facts about the novel coronavirus that is all over your newspapers, TVs, social media feeds, smartphones, etc.:
- The only available treatment for 2019-nCoV merely helps control and calm the symptoms.
- 2019-nCoV can be spread before symptoms are apparent.
- 2019-nCoV can lead to much more serious and deadly complications like pneumonia – especially in the elderly and those with preexisting conditions.
Each one of these points above is 100 percent applicable to the common cold – and more importantly – to the flu. We should be cautious with 2019-nCoV; we should be proactive with the flu because it’s been killing people by the millions each and every century since forever – with scant media coverage.
There remains no need to panic.