Familiarity creates dismissive attitude about deadly virus

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

A virus has sent 7 million people to the doctor, and 140,000 to the hospital.

Since Oct. 1, as many as 20,000 people have been killed by the microbe, 54 of them children.

From the headline, you’ve probably guessed that we’re talking about the “regular” seasonal influenza virus, this year mostly influenza B, which seems to be especially deadly for young people. That may be because older people may have some immunity built up in previous years.

While as many as 60,000 people will die from the seasonal flu, it’s the coronavirus making its way from China that is getting all the attention right now.

Today, a jumbo jet full of Americans evacuating from the Wuhan province of China were given the all-clear to come to the United States, although they’ll be quarantined for a few days before being allowed to go home.

With the ease of today’s worldwide travel, there are signs the coronavirus is spreading to the general population, in places like Germany, Japan, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Nearly 6,000 cases have been confirmed, with some reports from China putting that number much higher, and airlines are canceling flights to China.

Yet, compared to this year’s seasonal flu, which is widespread throughout the United States, “coronavirus will be a blip on the horizon in comparison,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventative medicine and health policy at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.

“The risk is trivial” compared to the 60,000 killed by seasonal flu. “When we think about the relative danger of this new coronavirus and influenza, there’s just no comparison,” he said.

We’re used to hearing warnings about influenza, yet fewer than half of us got a flu shot last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and only 62% of children, who are especially vulnerable, are vaccinated.

Thanks to the media attention, we’re more prone to worry about a new virus like coronavirus, for example, than measles, which has killed 5,000 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo this year, twice as many as Ebola.

Yes, flu vaccinations don’t always work since we can never be sure what type of influenza will dominate a certain season. But getting a flu shot, as well as common-sense steps like washing your hands and staying home when you’re sick, are still the best defense against the most significant threat.

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