The coronavirus outbreak that started in China has spread concerns across the world, but San Antonio doctors are urging their patients to focus on the risk of contracting the flu.
With more than 7,800 confirmed cases and at least 170 deaths, the coronavirus is a global public health emergency, the World Health Organization declared Thursday.
Local health experts said the flu, however, remains a much more realistic and immediate danger than contracting coronavirus, which has just six confirmed cases in the U.S.
“It’s understandable that people want to learn more about the coronavirus, but don’t lose sight of the fact that flu activity is high right now,” said Dr. Jason Bowling, infectious disease specialist at UT Health San Antonio. “We know that every year the flu leads to lots of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths in the U.S., but we still struggle to get people vaccinated.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates more than 19 million people have been infected with the flu this season, which started in late September. Of those cases, more than 30,500 were diagnosed in Texas and 3,739 in Bexar County, according to the most recent flu activity report from the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District.
“Overall flu activity seems to be a bit worse than last year, but it’s not as bad as two years ago when we had a historically terrible flu season,” Bowling said. “Whether it’s declared an immediate emergency or not, every year the total global morbidity for influenza is high. It’s a known public health concern all of the time.”
Dr. Pedro Piedra, professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said that while we don’t want to want to underestimate the impact the coronavirus may have in the U.S., “people frequently underestimate the impact of influenza and the toll it takes on communities.”
“There is some complacency among the general public with regards to influenza because we know so much about it, and it’s [seen as] simply a routine virus that occurs during winter,” Piedra said. “But because the flu is so common it really dwarfs what is happening with the novel coronavirus.”
Nine children ages 16 and younger have died from flu-related causes in Texas since the flu season began, according to Texas Department of State Health Services reports.
Bowling said that of the children who die every year, around 75 to 80 percent have not been vaccinated.
“Even if people get sick, if they have the vaccine, they are less likely to be hospitalized and are less likely to die as a result of the virus,” Bowling said, noting that University Health System hospitals are currently treating “a significant number of people in intensive care units for influenza.”
While older people have the highest risk for death, pregnant women are also at very high risk for flu-related complications. So are young, healthy people in part because they have less pre-existing immunity and fewer antibodies circulating, Bowling said.
Piedra said that because coronavirus is an “everchanging scenario right now” the medical community will remain “cognizant of the fact that it has the potential to be a major pandemic,” and it will remain in the spotlight as a virus of major concern as people continue to get tested, and China continues to grapple with treating and containing 99 percent of total diagnoses. But even then, he said, it would take a while for vaccines or antiviral medications to be developed and approved for distribution.
“From a long-term perspective we need to be thinking about these new emerging pathogens and have the ability to respond,” Piedra said. “But for now, influenza is peaking across the nation, the flu season is nowhere near over, and there are vaccines and antivirals available to treat it. So those who have not been vaccinated should do so as soon as possible.”