Americans are faced with an unpredictable virus that has been associated with the deaths of thousands of people and is being underscored by public officials — no, I am not talking about Ebola. I am talking about influenza (the flu), which is far more contagious than the Ebola virus, and has been linked to more deaths.
While the Center for Disease Control cannot provide a concrete number for just how many people die annually from complications with influenza, it estimates that between 1976 and 2007, the number ranges from 3,000 to nearly 50,000 each year. As of October 15, the deadliest outbreak of Ebola in Africa is nearing 4,500 deaths, and the flu is far more common and widespread than Ebola.
Flu seasons are unpredictable, which is part of the reason why the CDC cannot provide solid numbers on flu-related deaths. The strain of influenza that pops up from year-to-year varies and the length of a flu season can be longer or shorter from one year to the next. There is also the fact that states are not required to report deaths that may have occurred because of complications with influenza for anyone over the age of 18. Flu-related deaths in children “were made a nationally notifiable condition in 2004, and since then, states have reported flu-related child deaths in the United States through the Influenza Associated Pediatric Mortality Surveillance System.”
For one, the media only cares if the nation is looking at a seemingly horrible strain, like H1N1, and then it is time to stir panic. Also, there is the fact that not only are there ways of effectively treating the flu, but people can take preventive measures to protect themselves from catching influenza (i.e. getting a flu shot) — therefore, it is not as scary as Ebola, a virus that has no preventable treatment, is much more likely to kill a person infected, and still has mysterious characteristics even to experts in the fields of virology and medicine.
It doesn’t matter that experts know that Ebola is hard to transmit from one person to another. It also doesn’t matter that the 3 confirmed cases of Ebola in the U.S. are isolated to a single medical facility in Dallas, TX. It doesn’t matter that no other confirmed cases have been reported anywhere else, not even in Dallas or places the confirmed infected have traveled to.
Not only is the word ‘outbreak’ being used to discuss something that, to our knowledge, has not spread beyond an isolated area in the U.S., but 3 diagnoses is enough to throw around the word ‘epidemic.’
The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is an epidemic — which, by definition, is “a widespread occurrence of an infectious disease in a community at a particular time.” The U.S. has yet to see a widespread occurrence of the Ebola virus. The city of Dallas has yet to see a widespread occurrence of the virus.
There is likely one other reason national media outlets don’t make flu season a priority: influenza is rarely a primary cause of death in the U.S.
The estimated 3,000 to 50,000 people who die from complications with influenza each year more than likely passed away because another inflection occurred — like bacterial pneumonia — or because the virus aggravated another serious medical condition — the CDC gives the examples of congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
So, statistically, people are not likely to die from the flu, but they are significantly much more likely to catch it than the Ebola virus. In order to catch Ebola, a person would need direct contact with bodily fluids of someone infected and it is only contagious once symptoms appear.
The flu can be transmitted from person-to-person without bodily contact, from someone standing as close as six feet away. People can also carry and spread the flu without ever showing symptoms — meaning they may never get sick, but someone could become sick from getting the virus from them.
Do not panic. As many people know, If you get the flu, odds are you will be just fine with treatment — for which you can get over-the-counter relief. However, because the flu is such an unpleasant illness to contract and because it is highly contagious, if you are watching the seemingly nonstop news coverage of Ebola in the United States (i.e. Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas) and find yourself concerned, set your mind at ease and do yourself and those around you a favor — go get your flu shot.
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