February 4, 2020

Is it time to rebrand the 'flu'?

Daily Briefing

    Between 19 million and 26 million people have been sickened with the flu as of Jan. 25, according to the latest CDC data, and some experts are concerned that Americans are paying more attention to the new coronavirus than the flu—which is deadlier and more widespread.

    Q&A: How to achieve universal employee flu vaccination

    Flu activity so far

    According to Friday's Weekly Influenza Surveillance report from CDC, 49 states and Puerto Rico were experiencing widespread flu activity in the week ending in Jan. 25, while Hawaii was experiencing regional flu activity and Washington, D.C., was experiencing local flu activity.

    By some indicators, the United States' current flu season is worse than its last. For example, the CDC data shows the cumulative hospitalization rate for the flu so far this season is 29.7 per 100,000 people, compared with 18.6 per 100,000 at the same point last season.

    According to CDC, this year's flu season has led to at least 8.6 million medical visits and 180,000 hospitalizations. In addition, CDC found that the percentage of outpatient visits for influenza-like illness increased to 5.7% in the week ending Jan. 25, up from 5.1% in the week ending Jan. 18. The national baseline for those visits is 2.4%.

    The data also shows that between 10,000 and 25,000 flu-related deaths occurred from Oct. 1, 2019, to Jan. 25. According to the report, officials as of Jan. 25 had reported 68 pediatric deaths associated with the flu so far this season. Experts have said the influenza B strain that has been dominant this flu season is more likely to affect younger people, though they're not sure why. Some experts believe older people may have some immunity to influenza B, as it doesn't mutate as much as other flu strains. That means it's possible older people previously contracted the flu strain that's been most dominant so far this season.

    Coronavirus dominates news coverage, yet flu is deadlier

    Despite how bad this flu season has been in the United States, experts say the flu isn't getting nearly as much public attention in the country as the new coronavirus that originated in China, even though flu presents a much bigger risk to Americans.

    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."

    The World Health Organization on Monday said there have been at least 17,205 reported cases of the new coronavirus, with a vast majority of the cases occurring in China. There were 361 reported deaths linked to the virus as of Monday, and all but one of those deaths occurred in China.

    In comparison, CDC estimates that there have been at least 19 million U.S. flu cases so far this season, and the flu has killed between 10,000 and 25,000 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 new coronavirus currently is receiving, despite the fact that the flu kills more Americans every year than all other viruses. "Familiarity breeds indifference," Schaffner said, adding, "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, suggested making the flu seem less familiar to peak Americans' attention to the virus. "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 2/3; CDC Preliminary In-Season 2019-2020 Flu Burden Estimates, accessed 2/3; Cohen/Bonifield, CNN, 1/6; Sun, Washington Post, 1/10; Karlamangla, Los Angeles Times, 1/17; Szabo, Kaiser Health News, 1/24; Henry/Hauck, USA Today, 2/1).

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