While the new coronavirus ravages much of China and world leaders rush to close their borders, the flu has quietly killed 10,000 in the U.S. so far this influenza season (as of Feb. 7).
At least 19 million people have come down with the flu in the U.S. with 180,000 ending up in the hospital, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The flu season, which is considered to start Sept. 1 and runs until May 31, is currently at its peak and poses a greater health threat to the U.S. than the new coronavirus, physicians say.
As of mid-January, more than 4,000 cases had been reported in Kansas City, with three deaths attributed to flu, the KCMO Health Dept. said. In Kansas, non-lethal flu cases are not required to be reported; Kansas Dept. of Health and Environment data shows 17 deaths directly due to flu since Sept. 1.
Coronavirus, which first emerged in Wuhan, China, on Dec. 31, has sickened roughly 17,400 and killed 362 people mostly in that country as of Feb. 3.
“In the U.S., it’s really a fear based on media and this being something new,” Dr. Jennifer Lighter, hospital epidemiologist at NYU Langone Health, said of the new coronavirus. “When in reality, people can take measures to protect themselves against the flu, which is here and prevalent and has already killed 10,000 people.”
DEADLIER BUT FEWER CASES
The coronavirus outbreak, however, is proving to be more deadly than the flu. It has killed roughly 2% of the people who have contracted it so far, according to world health officials. That compares with a mortality rate of 0.095% for the flu in the U.S., according to CDC estimates for the 2019-2020 flu season. The CDC estimates that 21 million people will eventually get the flu this season.
“2% case fatality is still a tough case fatality when you compare it to the case fatality for the seasonal flu or other things,” Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO’s health emergencies program, said.
“A relatively mild virus can cause a lot of damage if a lot of people get it,” he added. “And this is the issue at the moment. We don’t fully understand it.”
Some health-care professionals and analysts believe the number of coronavirus cases to be much higher, which would be good news in a way – it would mean a lower mortality rate.
“I think we’re going to find that the mortality number is going to be lower,” Lighter said. “There is more than likely many times that number of people that have mild (cases) or are asymptomatic.”
“It may end up being comparable to a bad flu season,” Lighter added.
If that’s the case, that would bode well for the virus’ mortality rate, pathogens specialist Dr. Syra Madad said. It would bring the mortality rate much lower, she pointed out, if there were 100,000 cases and only 362 deaths rather than 10,000 cases with 362 deaths.
“If we’re saying over 100,000 cases, the overall severity of the disease goes down,” she said. “The risk to the general American public is low,” Madad said, though it’s still “very concerning.”
The two viruses have similar symptoms, which some health officials fear will cause misdiagnoses. Common flu symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat and aches. Coronavirus symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath, according to the CDC.
For now, Lighter stressed that the public should focus on the flu, which is affecting children especially hard this season. She urged people to get their flu shots, if they haven’t already, and practice good hygiene.
People should wash their hands for at least 20 seconds. Clean surfaces that people touch regularly. If a family member is sick with the flu, be sure to keep them in a separate room, like a bedroom or away from healthy members of the family until symptoms go away. If you’re near someone sick, stand three feet away at all times.
People with underlying health conditions such as asthma, heart disease, or compromised immune systems are considered high-risk and can develop dangerous complications from influenza.
Adults 65 years and older, those at risk of stroke, pregnant women and young children are also considered high-risk, according to the health department.
- CNBC.com contributed to this report