Opinion and Editorial

Wuhan virus is relatively mild, stop spreading viral fear

Robert Bartholomew (Health Crisis)
Filed on January 31, 2020 | Last updated on January 31, 2020 at 11.53 pm

All indications are that this coronavirus is much milder than its two cousins, SARS and MERS.

I am not downplaying the seriousness of the new coronavirus that has been spreading around the world. People are dying and every death is a tragedy, but it is not the end of civilisation as we know it, contrary to some media outlets which risk causing undue alarm and panic. The headlines are ominous: "Wuhan is Ground Zero for Deadly Coronavirus." "Situation in China is Grave." One paper carried an image of a Wuhan medic breaking down in tears. Another showing a pile of corpses was fake. The Daily Mail quoted a researcher as saying, "'This time I am scared,' expert who helped tackle SARS warns." Another scientist reportedly simulated a similar epidemic that he projected would kill 65 million people. What the headline didn't say is that it was a worst-case scenario for a virus deadlier than SARS and easier to catch than the flu, an extremely unlikely scenario.

It's important to put the risk into perspective. The coronavirus does not appear any worse than the annual flu. The key difference is that there is no vaccine, and one will likely take months to develop. It sounds even more daunting and sinister because it's new, mysterious, and originates from a foreign country. Adding the mystique is its suspected origin: a snake at an exotic animal market in the city of Wuhan, which sold everything from cow's heads to camels, foxes, badgers, and an array of rats and reptiles.

It's frightening to watch the news reports of health officials in China wearing rubber gloves, surgical masks, goggles, and hazmat suits as they treat patients. But these images need to be tempered with reality. Each year tens of thousands of Americans die from the influenza virus. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that last year alone about 40,000 citizens died from the flu. Two years ago, the death rate was the worst in a decade at 61,000. Most online sources will tell you that this figure was closer to 80,000, but the CDC later revised the number downward. Despite this, many of the original stories have never been updated.

During the 2018-2019 flu season in the United States, about 75 per cent of all deaths were age 65+. Roughly 17 per cent were between 50-64. These two categories comprise 91 per cent of all deaths. But look closer and you will see that many of them had an array of pre-existing conditions that left them with weakened immune systems.

Early reports from China back this up, most of those who have died were already in poor health. One preliminary report placed the median age of death as 75. As Michael Fumento observes, the virus will almost certainly hit China harder than developed Western countries; not because we have better medicines but because the flu victims in these countries often die from secondary infections due to inferior medical care, whereas in places like the US people rarely die from such infections. Catching Coronavirus is not a death sentence, but if you are elderly or have an underlying medical, you should take precautions. But that's the same advice doctors give every year for the flu.

All indications are that this coronavirus is much milder than its two cousins, SARS and MERS. When SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) broke out in China in 2002, it was traced to civet cats and had a death rate of about 10 per cent. There were just over 8,000 cases in 17 countries. SARS is a variant of the new coronavirus. In 2012, another variation of the virus broke out in the Middle East and was dubbed Middle East Respiratory Syndrome or MERS. The virus had a much higher death rate - about 35 per cent, but only affected 2,500 people and was much harder to catch than SARS; transmission was linked to camel meat. The good news about the new virus is that while it appears to spread more easily than its two predecessors, it is far less severe. That fits with a general rule that the more deadly the virus, the harder it is to catch.

Perhaps the biggest problem facing authorities is that the new coronavirus is relatively mild. With SARS and MERS, people got very sick and were easy to identify. With the new virus, you may have it and not even know. Based on the early statistics, the mortality rate for coronavirus is roughly 3 per cent, but the true number is probably much, much lower given the likelihood that many people have already been infected but haven't been sick enough to even seek treatment. Will the virus spread around the world? Yes, because it already has. But will it spread en masse? That remains to be seen. But if it does, expect it to be no worse than the flu.

However, one should remember that the human propensity to spread fear and misinformation through viral media may cause more harm than the coronavirus itself.

- Psychology Today

Robert Bartholomew is an American born medical sociologist, writer, journalist, and human rights advocate.

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