World / Science & Health

Coronavirus garners headlines, but there's another virus stalking America

Bloomberg

A second wave of seasonal influenza is taking hold in the U.S. and elsewhere, just as health officials are on high alert for new cases of the novel coronavirus. Many of the symptoms are the same, but when it comes to immediate risk, people should fear the flu more.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 19 million Americans have fallen ill with the flu so far this season, including 180,000 who ended up in the hospital. About 10,000 Americans have died, including more than 60 children.

The flu season has taken a backseat to the coronavirus emanating from Wuhan, China. That pathogen has already infected more than 11,700 people in more than two dozen countries, the vast majority in China.

Both viruses start off similarly: cough, fever and in some cases difficulty breathing. The key difference is that people most at risk for the coronavirus will have either traveled to China or been in close contact with someone who is already infected, said Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

The flu strain that is emerging now in the U.S. is an H1N1 type of influenza A, the one that normally kicks off the season. It can take hold in adults and may be more severe, resulting in more deaths. Japan has also detected influenza activity slightly earlier than in previous seasons, according to the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

Gregory Poland, director of the Vaccine Research Group at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, said: “Coronavirus isn’t a risk for the average American (or) for anyone who hasn’t traveled to China or been exposed to someone who has. Their risk is influenza, and it’s substantial.

“We get all worked up over exotic-sounding viruses, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t,” Poland said. “We ignore the annual toll of 10,000 or 20,000 or 30,000 deaths each year from a virus that we understand pretty well, have treatments for and can vaccinate against.”

The flu outbreak in the U.S. still isn’t as bad as 2017-2018, when the virus hit so hard that some hospitals had to set up triage centers in their parking lots. The influenza A that’s circulating now is the milder form — the one that landed two years ago put 810,000 Americans in the hospital, and resulted in about 61,000 deaths.

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