The media has been sounding the alarms about a possible coronavirus pandemic in recent weeks. To date, there have been just under 10,000 cases reported around the world (most of which are in China), over 200 of which have been fatal. Meanwhile, there have been 15 million cases of influenza in the U.S. alone this season, claiming 8,200 lives. Only 6 cases of coronavirus have been noted here at home.
So, while the commercial mainstream media whips up public hysteria about an exotic, newly-discovered virus that has affected relatively few, people are foregoing or forgetting to get inoculated against a far more common and potentially deadlier disease.
According to epidemiologist Emily Martin at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, it is largely about public perception. “The flu is just not as new and headline-grabbing, because we see it every year,” she recently told Axios. Infectious disease specialist Dr. James Lawler of the University of Nebraska also says that people are more afraid of an exotic, newly-identified disease such as coronavirus because diagnostic testing and vaccines are not yet available.
On the other hand, there is a vaccination for influenza, yet few people avail themselves of it.
Just over 100 years ago, in the wake of the First World War, a global epidemic of the H1N1 strain of influenza infected approximately 500 million, reaching populations from the Arctic Circle to remote islands in the South Pacific. According to medical historians, what came to be known as the “Spanish Flu” killed as many as 100 million people over a 2-year period, or about 5 percent of the world’s population. Ninety years later, H1N1 was still the most common strain of flu. Over the past five years, major outbreaks have occurred in India, Maldives, Myanmar, Morocco, and most recently in Iran (November 2019), claiming nearly 60 lives and sending 4,000 to the hospital.
The “Spanish Flu” epidemic of 1918-20 was largely overshadowed by the effects of the war and the major socio-political shifts of the time, such as Prohibition and federal suffrage for women. This is why the epidemic was largely forgotten until outbreaks during the 1990s and early 2000s returned it to public consciousness.
If there is any silver lining to the current hysteria over coronavirus, it may be that it has reminded us of that far more common and dangerous strain – and hopefully, convince those who should get vaccinated (particularly those with compromised immune systems or other conditions) to get vaccinated. Speaking to Kaiser Health News, Professor William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University Medical Center said: “When we think about the relative danger of this new coronavirus and influenza…coronavirus will be a blip on the horizon in comparison.”