Doctor Warns Parents That the Flu Is a Much Bigger Threat Here Than the Coronavirus

iStock

Sick child
iStock

In the last two weeks, the coronavirus that's now sweeping China has made countless headlines. After several cases have popped up across the US, many Americans are fearful it will soon take over in this country as well. But as the panic continues to grow, doctors are starting to speak out -- and remind us all that although the coronavirus is serious, the threat it poses to Americans is still incredibly low. The regular 'ole garden-variety flu, however? Now that's something we should be worried about.

  • It seems the nation has been slightly distracted by an epidemic taking place an ocean away, according to a new report by NPR. 

    Meanwhile, the one we've got going on right here has been remained deceptively under the radar.

    Each year, the flu kills thousands, yet somehow, those deaths don't make headlines in quite the same way that the latest coronavirus cases have.

    "Last year, we had 34,000 deaths from flu," epidemiologist Brandon Brown of the University of California at Riverside told NPR. 

    In fact, the flu is responsible for between 12,000 and 61,000 deaths each year, Brown noted -- "and this is just in the United States."

  • Advertisement
  • Worldwide, those numbers are even bigger.

    According to the latest research, nearly 5 million cases of the flu are reported annually each year, which leads to an average of 650,000 deaths.

    This year has definitely been a biggie. So far this season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated there have been at least 15 million flu illnesses, which have led to 140,000 hospitalizations and 8,200 deaths in the US. 

    There have been 54 reported flu-related pediatric deaths during the 2019-2020 season from Influenza B viruses.

  • If those numbers surprise you, you're probably not alone.

    When we hear stories about people who have died from the flu, it might be easy to dismiss them as extreme rare cases. Surely that's not something that could happen to me, we think. But the stats don't lie -- these cases actually aren't so rare. The draw-dropping headlines we tend to scroll past happened to real people who lost their lives to a highly contagious, yet preventable virus.

    One of those cases was 4-year-old Ashanti Grinage of Texas, who made the news last year when she died of the virus after skipping the flu shot. Or Leon Sidari, a previously healthy toddler who lost his life to the flu in 2017, inspiring his mother to speak out about the importance of the flu vaccine.

  • And then there are the thousands of other stories that don't often make headlines. 

    These are stories of near-misses that didn't end in death but certainly came quite close to it. 

    In 2013, Melissa Barvels became one of those stories. The Staten Island mother of three, who was pregnant at the time with her second child, decided to forgo the flu shot because she didn't believe it was necessary. She wound up contracting the H1N1 strain, so she was placed into an induced coma for 45 days -- during which she gave birth via C-section. Both Barvels and her unborn son miraculously survived, but the near-death experience turned her into a staunch advocate for the vaccine.

  • Even so, vaccine hesitancy continues to surge -- and not just here in the US, but also across the globe.

    In fact, the World Health Organization declared it one of the Top 10 global health concerns last year, as misinformation about vaccine side effects continues to spread. That, coupled with a common misconception that the flu is "harmless" and merely a "bad cold," has created a narrative around the flu shot that leaves health officials concerned (to say the least).

    Another common misconception is that it's "too late" to get vaccinated if you've past the October/November window. But not so, say experts. The flu season actually extends through April/May, though we tend to think of it as an early winter virus. Getting vaccinated now, to protect against any onset that might happen in the coming months, could be the difference between life and death.

  • Many flu shot skeptics often argue that the flu shot doesn't actually prevent people from getting the virus.

    Technically, that's true -- but it's a bit more complicated than you might think.

    According to the CDC, people who contract the flu after getting vaccinated were likely exposed to the virus shortly before they received the shot. The vaccination isn't fully effective for two weeks, as antibodies that provide protection take time to develop in the body, so that waiting period could prove key. (But that's all the more reason to get vaccinated at the start of the season.)

    There are also several strains of the flu virus, and it's possible you could be exposed to one that wasn't included in this year's seasonal flu shot. Still, that doesn't mean you weren't protected against the others, because the flu shot vaccinates against the three or four most common strains.

    And if you were vaccinated for a particular strain and still contracted it weeks or months later? Health experts say that the severity of the illness will most likely be far less, which is still significant.

    "Flu vaccination is not a perfect tool, but it is the best way to protect against flu infection," the CDC reported. 
  • To be fair, the coronavirus is posing a considerable risk in China, where thousands have been infected so far.

    According to the BBC, there have been 7,711 confirmed cases in the country as of January 29, and the death toll has risen to 170, though appears to be climbing by the day.

    Infections have also spread to at least 15 other countries, the outlet reports, including six known cases in the US. The pandemic has led to extreme travel restrictions from China, with several US airlines halting flights to and from the nation.

  • Part of what makes the virus feel even scarier (aside from its frightening name) is that a lot about it is still unknown.

    According to ABC News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jen Ashton, health experts aren't totally sure of how it's transmitted, how contagious it truly is, how long its incubation period lasts, or how fatal the virus is. (Right now, the fatality rate is "hovering around 2-3 percent," she said, but that could grow.) 

    It's for this reason that the US response so far has been "aggressive," Ashton said.

  • The bottom line, health officials say, is that we shouldn't be so distracted by the coronavirus headlines that we forget about the flu.

    In addition to getting an annual flu shot, experts urge people to remember other important methods for preventing illness.

    "Our hands are one of the main ways we can transmit a virus," Brown told NPR, stressing the importance of thorough handwashing. 

    Another key thing to remember? Everything you touch has bacteria lurking.

    "We shake other people's hands, we touch surfaces, open doors," he said -- so pay attention to what you come into contact with, and sanitize accordingly. 

    Although handwashing may sound pretty simple, that coupled with annual vaccinations will be the best defense against the common flu. As the saying goes, it really is better to be safe than sorry.