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January 28, 2020

Experts worry coronavirus is distracting from the flu

Daily Briefing

    Between 15 million and 21 million people have been stricken with the flu as of Jan. 18, according to the latest CDC data, and some experts are concerned that Americans are paying more attention to the novel Chinese coronavirus than the flu, despite flu presenting a more immediate threat. 

    Q&A: How to achieve universal employee flu vaccination

    Flu activity so far

    According to Friday's Weekly Influenza Surveillance report from CDC, 48 states were experiencing widespread flu activity in the week ending in Jan. 18, while Oregon was experiencing regional flu activity. Just Washington, D.C. and Hawaii were experiencing local flu activity.

    By some indicators, this season is worse than last. For example, the data shows the cumulative hospitalization rate for the flu is 24.1 per 100,000 people this season, compared with 16.3 per 100,000 at the same point last season.

    According to CDC, this year's flu season has led to at least seven million medical visits and 140,000 hospitalizations. . In addition, CDC found that the percentage of outpatient visits for influenza-like illness increased to 5% in the week ending Jan. 18, up from 4.7% in the week ending Jan. 11. The national baseline for those visits is 2.4%.

    The data also shows that between 8,200 and 20,000 flu-related deaths occurred from Oct. 1, 2019, to Jan. 18. This flu season has been especially bad for children, according to CDC. The latest CDC report shows 54 pediatric deaths have been reported as of Jan. 18.

    Experts are unsure why the influenza B strain that has been dominant this season is more likely to affect younger people. Some believe that older people may have some immunity to influenza B, as it doesn't mutate as much as other flu strains do, meaning it's possible older people have caught the flu circulating this season before.

    Wuhan virus dominates news coverage

    Despite how bad the flu season has been, the flu isn't getting nearly as much public attention as the new coronavirus that originated in China, even though flu presents a much bigger risk to Americans, Kaiser Health News reports.

    William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and health policy at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said, "When we think about the relative danger of this new coronavirus and influenza, there's just no comparison. Coronavirus will be a blip on the horizon in comparison. The risk is trivial."

    Chinese officials on Monday said there have been 80 reported deaths linked to the virus in the country. In comparison, the flu has killed between 8,200 and 20,000 people in the United States. Peter Hotez, a professor of pediatrics, molecular virology, and microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine, said the flu rarely gets the attention that the coronavirus is receiving despite the fact that it kills more Americans every year than all other viruses.

    "Familiarity breeds indifference," Schaffner said. "Because it's new, it's mysterious, and comes from an exotic place, the coronavirus creates anxiety."

    Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, said, "We should rename influenza; call it XZ-47 virus, or something scarier" (CDC Weekly U.S. Influenza Surveillance Report, 1/24; CDC "Flu View," accessed 1/24; CDC Preliminary In-Season 2019-2020 Flu Burden Estimates, accessed 1/24; Cohen/Bonifield, CNN, 1/6; Sun, Washington Post, 1/10; Karlamangla, Los Angeles Times, 1/17; Szabo, Kaiser Health News, 1/24).

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