A lot of attention has focused on Chinese health officials’ efforts to halt the spread of a new coronavirus that has killed more than 130 people in China and sickened thousands of people worldwide, including five in the U.S., since last month.
But there is another virus that already has made its way into the general population, sickening 15 million people and killing 8,200 others — including 54 children — in the U.S. alone since Oct. 1.
It is the flu.
“Influenza is going to cause thousands more hospitalizations and I’m afraid many, many deaths that will make the coronavirus impact on our country very tiny in comparison,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University. “In comparison to influenza, the risk is trivial. The risk from influenza is real and present.”
Dr. Schaffner described the flu and the coronavirus as “remarkably similar” respiratory illnesses with a capacity to spread rapidly and cause pneumonia-like complications. Both the coronavirus and the flu appear to typically affect older people and those with serious underlying medical conditions. He noted one difference is that the coronavirus seems to have spared children while the flu seriously affects them.
The coronavirus, which officials say originated from an animal market in the Chinese city of Wuhan, has infected about 6,000 people and killed at least 132 people since it was first reported last month.
U.S. health officials have confirmed a total of five cases in Arizona, Washington state, Illinois and California. Health officials are investigating two suspected cases in the District of Columbia, and one case each in Maryland and Virginia.
“Americans should note this is a potentially very serious public health threat. But at this point, Americans should not worry for their own safety,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said this week.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are waiting on test results of 92 patients suspected of having the coronavirus.
Fourteen other countries have confirmed more than 60 cases including Canada, Japan, Germany, France, Australia, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, Nepal and Sri Lanka. The Middle East confirmed its first cases Wednesday in a family from Wuhan who visited the United Arab Emirates.
The World Health Organization is to convene Thursday to decide whether to classify the coronavirus as a global health crisis.
Dr. Schaffner said it appears that some countries already are treating the coronavirus as an international health concern, noting that airlines such as British Airways and United Airlines have halted flights to China.
Countries, including the U.S., Japan, Australia and New Zealand, have evacuated or are planning to evacuate their citizens out of China to help stem the spread of the coronavirus.
About 200 American evacuees arrived back to the country Wednesday, landing in Riverside County, California. They will be monitored and tested for the coronavirus.
Dr. Nancy Messonnier of the CDC said the 195 passengers have been screened and evaluated during their trip back to the U.S. None of the passengers are showing symptoms of the virus and are being housed at the March Air Reserve Base, she said.
Twenty U.S. airports now are conducting entry screenings, up from five last week. The State Department has issued travel warnings for China, recommending that travelers reconsider travel to the country and not travel to Hubei province, the epicenter of the coronavirus.
Chinese health officials locked down at least 17 cities, including Wuhan, ahead of the Lunar New Year last weekend, shutting down public transportation and quarantining more than 50 million people.
The coronavirus belongs to the same family of viruses as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome), illnesses that can spread from animals to humans and that sickened hundreds in earlier outbreaks.
CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said that while bats are the most common source of coronaviruses, there could be another source behind the new coronavirus in China.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases has surpassed the spread of the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003. But the death toll from the coronavirus is still lower than the 348 people in China who were killed by SARS.
Dr. Schaffner said it is too early to say whether the coronavirus is less or more severe than SARS, which killed close to 800 in 2002 and 2003 worldwide.
It is also unfair to compare the flu — a plain but serious illness that occurs yearly — and the coronavirus, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“The reason it’s, in some respects, potentially misleading to compare the two, is that this virus is evolving and could explode into a much, much bigger outbreak that would impact the NIH,” Dr. Fauci said.
He said the burden of disease at any given moment of the flu is clearly greater than what is happening with the coronavirus right now.
“We are still in the middle of the flu season. People are getting the flu. People are dying from the flu every day,” Dr. Fauci said. “Our problem right now, in real time, is the flu. But it is uncertain what the dynamics or evolution of this other virus is. Right now risk is low, but there is unpredictability.”
This year’s flu season started the earliest it has in 15 years, largely due to an influenza B/Victoria viral strain that dominated earlier than usual. Thirty-five states and New York City are experiencing high flu activity, the CDC reports.
Health officials are trying to determine how quickly the coronavirus can spread and if it can transmit when infected persons aren’t showing symptoms.
Symptoms of the coronavirus can include fever, cough and shortness of breath. The CDC believes symptoms can appear two to 14 days after exposure.
The flu can cause similar symptoms in addition to muscle aches, headaches, fatigue, runny nose, vomiting and diarrhea. Health professionals recommend everyone six months and older get a flu shot.
⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.