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Keeping Coronavirus In Perspective – Influenza is a much bigger worry

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When I walk through our hospital’s emergency department, I’m reminded of the global outbreak we really should be worried about — influenza.

We’re at a high point in the flu season, with 15 million cases, 150,000 hospitalizations, and 8,200 deaths in the United States alone, according to the CDC. In Arizona, 12,170 flu cases and 16 deaths have been reported, though that number is likely higher.

Michael D. White

Michael D. White

Every day, dozens of these sick individuals come through the emergency department at Valleywise Health Medical Center in Phoenix, and many are admitted to the hospital with symptoms like high fever, chills and sweats and difficulty breathing.

Yet, I spend much of my time talking to the media and public about the new strain of coronavirus identified in China. Public curiosity is natural, but it’s important to keep it in perspective – your chances of contracting the novel coronavirus are unlikely.

There is no mistake – coronavirus is a serious disease and we must be vigilant in monitoring its spread while working to find solutions. At Valleywise Health, we screen all patients for international travel history, including China, and we are prepared to treat a patient with a rare infectious disease.

But our worldwide, intense focus on the new coronavirus becomes somewhat ironic in the lack of attention given to the deadly annual march of another severe respiratory virus – influenza – responsible for the deaths of 34,000 people in the US last year.

By contrast, there are only six confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the US.  Five of the US cases involve an individual who has traveled to Wuhan, China, where the outbreak originated. The first person to person transmission in the United States is the husband of a woman who developed symptoms after traveling to China.

Although the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency Jan. 30, there’s still no reason to panic.

“We understand this may be concerning, but based on what we know now, our assessment remains that the immediate risk to the American public is low,” said Robert Redfield, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in USA Today.

How can you protect yourself? If you haven’t gotten a flu shot, it’s not too late.

The other measures are simple — wash your hands and cover your cough! Our hands are the main culprit for virus transmission because we touch contaminated surfaces, open doors or shake someone’s hands. Then we get sick by touching our mouth, eyes or nose.

Take these steps and you’ll greatly lessen your chances of catching the flu bug this year.

Dr. Michael D. White is chief medical officer for Valleywise Health.

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