Overreacting to unknown risk while underreacting to the known ones

It quickly became apparent Coronavirus was not as much of a threat as the seasonal flu

In case you hadn’t heard, there is a potentially deadly, infectious disease going around. In fact, in Canada alone there are already some 13,000 confirmed cases resulting in hundreds of hospitalizations and around a dozen deaths with around three months remaining and the normal peak in March yet to come.

No, it is not the Coronavirus which emerged recently from Wuhan, China and has gotten more press over the last two weeks than even Meghan and Harry.

It is the seasonal flu.

We humans are a panicky bunch, at least when faced with something new. I get it. We are hardwired by our most primitive instincts to perceive the unknown as a potential threat until proved otherwise.

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Virtually from the very start of this latest “global health emergency,” however, it was apparent it was not going to be our era’s Black Plague or the 1918 Spanish flu. Just by modern science and response protocols alone, we are better prepared. Although it cannot, perhaps, be reliably predicted how the situation will ultimately unfold, early statistics are comforting.

By Monday morning estimates had the number of Coronavirus infections at close to 17,500 with 362 deaths globally, all of them in China. That’s a mortality rate of about two per cent on the very preliminary data. In the City of Wuhan, it was 5.5 per cent, outside Wuhan within Hubei province it was one per cent and outside Hubei, it was only 0.3 per cent. We knew early on, close contact with another infected person was required for transmission.

In 2009, the big panic was the swine flu (or H1N1). That one spread wide and fast ultimately killing an estimated 220,000 people worldwide.

Although preliminary data had the mortality rate in the three to four per cent range, when the pandemic petered out, the final calculation was more like .02 per cent.

Almost all the deaths were in developing countries with far less sophisticated healthcare systems. In Canada, the death toll was 428.


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In 2003, the panic was about the spread of SARS, but high levels of global cooperation effectively contained the spread of that disease beyond the source. Canada’s own bungled efforts were the exception.

At the end of the SARS pandemic, however, there were only 8,098 confirmed cases resulting in 744 fatalities.

That’s an extremely low rate of transmission, but an extremely high mortality rate at 9.5 per cent. Canada counted 44 deaths, the only country outside of Asia to report fatalities.

Although the current outbreak’s number of confirmed cases has already surpassed SARS, it’s mortality rate certainly appears poised to be much lower probably by at least a couple of orders of magnitude. That’s just the way the data generally works on these things.

None of this is not to say Canadian health authorities should not be vigilant and take measures to prevent the Coronavirus from spreading here. And it appears they are, which is good, because it is a developing situation. Meanwhile China is taking draconian actions to contain it, which appear to be helping.

Nor should individual Canadians not take (reasonable) precautions to avoid being infected or infecting others if they notice flu-like symptoms.

Meanwhile, we continue to ignore the known threat.

Health Canada estimates, on average, seasonal influenza results in approximately 12,200 hospitalizations and 3,500 deaths annually.

Nevertheless, we generally don’t even take the minimum measures to prevent its spread. Uptake of the vaccine is generally around 40 per cent. We still go into work sick and send sick children to school. We ignore coughing and sneezing etiquette, fail to keep shared surfaces and objects clean and don’t bother to frequently wash our hands.

I am not trying to diminish the potential seriousness of the new threat, only underscore the importance of also taking preventative measures against equally or more dangerous existing ones.


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