The new coronavirus outbreak is dominating headlines. More than 17,000 people have contracted the pneumonia-like illness since it was first reported last month, and more than 360 have died. China has imposed a quarantine on over 50 million people. As of Sunday, the U.S. had confirmed 11 cases, all among travelers or their spouses, 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 a virus right here in our country 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. (In Maine, there have been over 3,000 confirmed cases of the flu and nearly 200 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 about SARS was its contagion 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 6 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 percent of influenza strains. The CDC recommends that every person over 6 months old receive the flu vaccine, unless they have specific medical reasons not to.

Yet vaccination rates remain low. Fewer than half of Americans receive it, with rates in some recent years dipping to less than 40 percent. One survey found that one in four of those who forgo the vaccine say they do so 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.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.