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Coronavirus and the flu: What's similar, what's different

The CDC says you should wash your hands:

Flu season usually tapers off by April — but expect the coronavirus pandemic to last until September; that's the "best guess" of the New York City health commissioner.

There are similarities (the symptoms, the mode of transmission, the lack of cure) and differences (contagiousness, deadliness, immunity). 

Here are a few.

The coronavirus is thought to be 10 times deadlier than the flu — if not more.

The mortality rate of the flu is 0.1%, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s 10 times higher for the coronavirus, according to testimony Wednesday before the U.S. House of Representatives by the government’s top leading doctor on the outbreak, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. 

The World Health Organization thinks the mortality rate is even lower for flu: usually "well below" 0.1%, according to a March 6 bulletin.

Although President Donald Trump told Fox News host Sean Hannity last Wednesday that “personally” he believes that coronavirus’ mortality rate is “way under one percent,” that is not borne out by the scientific consensus.

According to the WHO bulletin: “Mortality for COVID-19 appears higher than for influenza, especially seasonal influenza,” but added that “the true mortality of COVID-19 will take some time to fully understand.”

The director-general of the WHO said March 3 that the global death rate is 3.4%.

The true mortality rate could be higher or lower than these estimates. During the SARS epidemic of the early 2000s, for example, the mortality rate turned out to be even higher than initially estimated.

You're more likely to infect someone with the coronavirus than with the flu.

The average person with the flu is expected to infect 1.3 other people — compared to between 2 and 2.5 with coronavirus, according to one early estimate from the WHO.

Those numbers are known in epidemiology as “R0," an estimate of contagiousness. 

As with the mortality rate, scientists are still grappling with how contagious the coronavirus is. 

The initial symptoms — cough and fever — are similar to those of the flu.

Both illnesses can be transmitted not only by direct, prolonged contact, but also by droplets generated by sneezing, coughing, hacking — or touching objects touched by those droplets, mucus and other bodily substances, and then touching your face or somewhere else with the contaminated hand. 

According to the MIT Technology Review: “Research suggests people with coronavirus remain contagious for much longer than those with flu.”

Neither the flu nor coronavirus is like the measles, which lingers in the air for hours after an infected person leaves a room.

“Measles is so contagious that if one person has it, up to 90% of the people close to that person who are not immune also will become infected,” according to the CDC.

The R0 of the measles? 12 to 18 people, according to the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases. 

There’s no immunity to, or vaccine for, the coronavirus. 

You hear the gentle reminder every year: get your flu shot!

According to the CDC, a flu shot reduces the risk of having to go to the doctor by 40% to 60%, although effectiveness can vary.

There’s no vaccine — yet — for the coronavirus, a new disease barely understood by scientists. It’ll be at least 12 to 18 months before a vaccine for the coronavirus is developed and available.

COVID-19 is described as the "novel" coronavirus for a reason.

“As COVID-19 is a newly identified pathogen, there is no known preexisting immunity in humans,” according to a report from the WHO's mission last month to China, where the virus originated. “Based on the epidemiologic characteristics observed so far in China, everyone is assumed to be susceptible, although there may be risk factors increasing susceptibility to infection.”

Nevertheless, even amid a coronavirus pandemic, you should still get your flu shot. Besides protecting yourself and others, you’ll reduce the drain on the health care system as it devotes resources to treating coronavirus.

 

Coronavirus is ultimately more severe than the seasonal flu.

“COVID-19 causes more severe disease than seasonal influenza,” according to March 3 remarks by the WHO's director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

He explained: “We have vaccines and therapeutics for seasonal flu, but at the moment there is no vaccine and no specific treatment for COVID-19.”

Nevertheless, 80% of people who come down with an infection of coronavirus will have a mild or moderate illness, with the remainder more severe. 

The initial symptoms — cough and fever — are similar to those of the flu, and thus a test is required to identify the virus. Other symptoms include aches, fatigue and sometimes diarrhea and vomiting. Neither is treatable by antibiotics.

The virus is caused by SARS-CoV-2, whereas the flu is caused by strains of several types of influenza. 

And because many people’s symptoms will be mild: “A virus that poses a low health threat on the individual level can pose a high risk on the population level, with the potential to cause disruptions of global public health systems and economic losses,” according to a Feb. 26 article in the New England Journal of Medicine.

There are now 12,462 cases in Italy — with 827 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins, with much of the country in crisis. The first case there was reported Feb. 20.

Both flu and coronavirus can be prevented by thoroughly washing your hands, covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and staying home when you’re not feeling well — and especially when you’re symptomatic. 

Here's how the CDC says you should wash your hands: wet them in clean, running water, lather with soap and scrub for at least 20 seconds, then rinse under that water. Cough or sneeze into the crook of your arm.

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