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Amid Coronavirus Scare, U.S. Counts Thousands Of Flu Deaths


The World Health Organization warned today that the whole world needs to be on alert for the coronavirus spreading out from China. The U.N. health agency also announced that an emergency committee will meet again tomorrow to assess the global threat this virus poses. It is important to point out that, in the United States, another type of respiratory illness has led to far more deaths - at least 8,000 deaths this season alone in the United States. This disease is the flu. This isn't even a particularly bad flu year. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports on the steps you can take to prevent the flu, which resemble those you'd use against coronavirus.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: If you live in the United States, your risk of contracting the novel coronavirus at this time is exceedingly low. By contrast, the flu virus is very active this time of year. In fact, the CDC estimates that so far, about 15 million people have gotten sick with the flu. And more than 150,000 people have been hospitalized. Brandon Brown is an epidemiologist at the University of California, Riverside. He says each year, the flu leads to thousands of deaths.

BRANDON BROWN: Last year we had 34,000 deaths from the flu. The year before, we had 61,000 deaths. And this is just the United States. So the one thing that we should really be focusing on right now is the flu. We're in the flu season.

AUBREY: The top way to protect yourself against the flu is to get a flu shot. It's not too late to get vaccinated this season. Another effective strategy is to be vigilant about washing your hands. Not only can this habit help fend off the flu, it may also be among the most effective steps against the new coronavirus if it were to start spreading within the U.S.

BROWN: We can use the same prevention methods that we're using for the flu to kind of tackle the coronavirus - the novel coronavirus that we're hearing about right now.

AUBREY: There's still a lot to learn about this new coronavirus. But Brown says respiratory illnesses in general, whether it's a coronavirus or the flu, can spread via little respiratory droplets when an infected person sneezes or coughs. That's why it's important for people who are sick to cover their coughs, sneeze into their elbow and stay home from work or school if possible. All of this, including the handwashing, may sound so obvious. But generally, people are not good about remembering. As a reality check, try this - try to notice, just for a day or so, everything that you touch.

BROWN: We use our hands to shake other people's hands. We use our hands to touch surfaces, to open doors. Our hands are one of the main ways that we can actually transmit viruses.

AUBREY: When it comes to preventing the spread of the new coronavirus, there's a lot to learn. The situation changes daily. But so far, some experts say this new virus does not appear to be as lethal as some of the other novel coronaviruses that have led to outbreaks, including SARS back in the early 2000s and more recently, MERS. Michael Ison is an infectious disease physician at Northwestern University.

MICHAEL ISON: The mortality for MERS was about 34%. Mortality for SARS was about nine to 10%. And currently, it's somewhere between two and 4% for this novel coronavirus.

AUBREY: That's an estimate, and it could change. But the bottom line for those of us who live in the U.S...

ISON: The risk of catching flu is exponentially higher than catching the novel coronavirus.

AUBREY: And the best defense against both may be as simple as following the good hygiene habits that kids are taught in school.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ALBUM LEAF'S "BLANK PAGES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.