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Some say the coronavirus risk is exaggerated, the ‘normal’ flu is just as bad. Here’s some perspective

All respiratory illnesses, including both the coronavirus and influenza, are the most dangerous for individuals above the age of 65. Those with poor immunity or chronic illnesses are also at greater risk than others.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: March 3, 2020 8:46:15 am
Explained: Some say the coronavirus risk is exaggerated, the ‘normal’ flu is just as bad. Here’s some perspective The World Health Organisation (WHO) has raised its assessment of the spread and risk of impact of COVID-19 to “very high at global level”. (AP)

Australia and the United States have announced their first coronavirus deaths and the global death toll is approaching 3,000. The virus is now in 59 countries on all continents except Antarctica, with nearly 87,000 cases recorded officially. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has raised its assessment of the spread and risk of impact of COVID-19 to “very high at global level”.

As the concern spreads, however, several voices are asking whether coronavirus is really as serious a threat as it sounds, and whether the common flu actually does not kill more people.

 

President Donald Trump has accused the news media and his political opponents of exaggerating the threat, and the White House has declared that COVID-19 is “not a death sentence”.

This line of argument echoes the one adopted by some leaders in Southeast Asia early in the outbreak.

Here’s some perspective on the flu vs COVID-19.

The question of death rates

Because the flu is “normal” to most people, it’s important to be careful to not assume that it is “harmless”. (“Oh, it’s just the flu, nothing to make a big fuss about!”)

Virologists cannot stop the spread of the flu, and it kills people around the world. The last thing the world needs is to have another contagious respiratory disease to become “normal”.

Also, the coronavirus seems to be more dangerous than the flu. Here’s the data.

Seasonal flu strains typically kill about 0.1% of people who contract it. That is, one person out of 1,000 on average. It is fair to assume that the toll would be higher among vulnerable sections of the population, and in poorer countries with inadequate health infrastructure.

Compare this with the novel coronavirus: estimates from Wuhan, based on official Chinese figures, put the death rate at 2%. Subsequent research lowered this figure to around 1.4% — even so, experts have cautioned that it may not be capturing adequately the existence of mild cases or cases that do not show the typical symptoms.

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Note, however, that a low death rate can end up translating into a large absolute death toll if the numbers of those infected are huge. The coronavirus is spreading to more and more countries and the numbers of infections are rising.

How contagious is each virus?

Health experts have said that the coronavirus is more contagious than most strains of the flu — and about as contagious as the flu strains that appear in pandemic seasons.

Each infected person is infecting 2.2 people on average, data on COVID-19 show. This number is expected to fall as the disease is managed better than it was originally, when it first hit Wuhan in China.

However, the spread in Iran is worrying, and commentators have noted the apparent lack of information and awareness in controlling its spread. Also, things can take a turn in the wrong direction quite easily if countries in South Asia, including India, with their high population densities and fragile health infrastructure, fall victim in a big way.

Which are the most vulnerable groups?

All respiratory illnesses, including both the coronavirus and influenza, are the most dangerous for individuals above the age of 65. Those with poor immunity or chronic illnesses are also at greater risk than others.

In China, more men seemed to be dying than women. This pattern has not been adequately explained, even though it has been suggested that Chinese men are more commonly smokers than women, and may, therefore, have weaker lungs. However, this argument does not work for the flu, which shows no such pattern of mortality.

Also Read | In graying Japan, many are vulnerable but few are being tested

Again, while children, and especially young children, seem to catch the flu very easily and suffer greatly, children infected with the new coronavirus have shown mild or no symptoms.

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