April 08, 2020
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The coronavirus is scary. So is the flu.

Terry Chea | AP
Terry Chea | AP
In this Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020, photo, Bill Chen stands outside of customs at San Francisco International Airport after arriving on a flight from Shanghai, where he was conducting business and visiting family over the Lunar New Year holiday. Chen said his temperature was quickly screened at the Shanghai airport before he departed.

The coronavirus is frightening. The number of confirmed cases of the disease increased by 60 percent literally overnight earlier this week. As of Friday, nearly 10,000 cases had been confirmed, nearly all of them in China, where 213 people have died from the infection. There are six confirmed cases in the U.S.

The scope of the outbreak worldwide is likely larger than the number of confirmed cases. A Northeastern University virus spreading analysis estimates the size of the outbreak at 26,200 infections.

The city of Wuhan, the center of the global outbreak, has essentially been shut down and quarantined from the rest of China and the world and some airlines have halted flights to China.

The World Health Organization has declared a global public health emergency.

The spread of coronavirus is certainly cause for concern. But here in Maine, we can’t lose sight of a much more familiar danger: influenza.

Earlier this week, more than 3,000 cases of influenza had been confirmed in Maine during this flu season, which began in September and runs through May. Cases have been confirmed in all 16 counties. The highest numbers of cases have been in York, Cumberland and Penobscot counties.

Nearly 200 people have been hospitalized in Maine as a result of these infections, according to data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Ten people have died.

“Context is important at a time like this. Influenza kills more Americans than any other virus,” Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah said in a statement to the Bangor Daily News.

Nationwide, influenza has already sickened at least 15 million Americans this winter. At least 140,000 Americans have been hospitalized because of the flu and as many as 20,000 have died, according to the CDC. Because many people who contract the flu do not seek medical attention and because doctors and hospitals are not mandated to report flu cases to state or federal officials, these numbers are estimates. They are probably low for these reasons.

In a bad year, the flu kills up to 61,000 Americans.

Worldwide, the flu causes up to 5 million cases of severe illness and kills up to 650,000 people every year, according to the World Health Organization.

Unlike the coronavirus, there is a simple thing most people can do to prevent an influenza infection, or lessen its severity: get vaccinated.

“It’s not too late to get a flu shot, which is the best way to protect yourself and loved ones,” the Maine CDC’s Shah reminds the state’s residents. Although the effectiveness of flu vaccines varies each year, an inoculation can lessen the severity of the illnesses if you are exposed to the flu.

Yet, fewer than half of American and Maine adults got a flu shot last season, according to CDC estimates. Nationwide, fewer than two-thirds of children, who can be especially vulnerable to respiratory illnesses, were vaccinated during the last flu season.

In Maine, 63 percent of children aged 6 months to 17 years old received the flu vaccination during the 2018-19 influenza season.

You can find a flu clinic near you on the CDC’s flu webpage.

The spread of coronavirus, which appears to be highly contagious and for which there is currently no vaccine, rightly raises fears. But, so too should the risk of influenza.

 


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