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Experts Warn Flu Poses Greater Health Risk Than Coronavirus


Illnesses and deaths associated with the novel coronavirus are growing worldwide, but medical experts in Springfield say influenza continues to pose a much greater risk to the public in central Illinois and the rest of the United States.

There’s no vaccine yet for coronavirus, which so far has infected 12 people and resulted in no deaths in the United States.

But two Springfield doctors say flu shots offer useful – though not perfect – protection against influenza, which has caused at least 22 million flu illnesses this season and 12,000 deaths nationwide.

Promoting awareness about the coronavirus is a good idea, especially as new information emerges in Asia, said Dr. Steven O’Marro, a Springfield Clinic infectious-disease specialist. But influenza, which appears to be peaking in central Illinois as it normally does in February, poses a “much more immediate threat,” he said.

Dr. Janak Koirala, chief of infectious diseases at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Springfield, said flu “causes a lot more mortality in the United States than I think the coronavirus is going to cause.”

With more than half of American adults not getting a flu shot each year, and four in 10 children going unvaccinated, the doctors said they wish flu shots and other measures to cut down on transmission would receive as much attention in the news media as the new Chinese coronavirus.

“This coronavirus is mysterious and scary, so it captures people’s attention,” said O’Marro, medical director of infection prevention at Memorial Medical Center.

O’Marro said he and other medical experts aren’t discounting the coronavirus, which originated in the city of Wuhan in central China.

More than 43,000 people, most of them in mainland China — a country of 1.4 billion people — have tested positive for the respiratory virus, and there have been at least 1,100 deaths worldwide.

In the United States, 12 people have tested positive for the coronavirus, while results are pending for approximately 70 other people, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The positive cases include two in Illinois – a Chicago-area man in his 60s who is the spouse of the first confirmed travel-related case in the state.

It appears the coronavirus in Asia is causing the worst complications for people with reduced immune systems, such as the elderly, and the death rate among infected people may be as high as 2% to 3%, according to news reports and the latest estimates.

That death rate would be several times higher than the death rate for influenza, which is less than 1%, but experts disagree on the coronavirus’ fatality rate as more information emerges on the total number of infected individuals.

The risk of infection by coronavirus remains low in Illinois, said Gina Carnduff, Memorial Health System’s director of infection prevention.

Meanwhile, flu activity is considered high in Illinois, one of 48 states with that designation for the week ending Feb. 1, according to the CDC.

Positive flu tests since early October for patients of Memorial Medical Center and at Memorial ExpressCare clinics and Memorial Physician Services offices in Sangamon County rose from 154 cases on Jan. 25 to 429 cases on Feb. 1 and 639 cases on Feb. 8.

Thirty-six of this season’s positive cases have resulted in hospital admissions, Carnduff said.

In Illinois and Springfield, this flu season appears to be worse than last year’s season and more like the 2017-18 season, though there were more hospitalizations in 2017-18, she said.

Elderly people and others with reduced immune systems were the hardest hit by flu-related medical complications, she said.

It’s unknown so far whether this season’s flu vaccine formula is less effective than usual, Carnduff said, but Memorial has seen more children and young adults testing positive for flu this season than in typical years.

The Type A flu strain that appears to be causing the most severe illnesses this year is more aggressive than what doctors usually see in patients, Koirala said.

The effectiveness of the flu vaccine – its ability to prevent infection – can range from 30% to 70%, while vaccines for other illnesses such as measles, mumps and polio are successful more than 90% of the time, he said.

People often overlook the flu vaccine’s ability to reduce the severity of flu-related illness, or they falsely believe it can cause flu, Koirala said. That may be because viruses other than influenza can cause flu-like symptoms, he said.

The CDC says 45.3% of American adults received flu shots in the 2018-19 season. The nationwide figure represented an increase of 8 percentage points from the previous season.

In Illinois, 41.3% of adults got shots in 2018-19 – the eight-worst rate among the states – though 67.4% of Illinoisans 65 and older got shots, based on CDC statistics.

O’Marro said many of the hospitalized patients he has treated for the flu this season weren’t vaccinated.

Some of them have “listened to people who are famous” who have criticized vaccines in general because of unwarranted concerns that vaccines cause autism, he said. “And some people are just anti-vaccination,” he said.

Most people don’t realize the value of vaccines over the decades, he said.

“These people don’t live with their relatives, who have since died, who had to deal with typhoid fever and tetanus and diphtheria and smallpox, polio, measles and mumps,” O’Marro said. “The influenza vaccination saves lives.”

Carnduff said it’s not too late to get a flu shot and added that it takes two weeks for the flu vaccine to ramp up a person’s immune system.

“The vaccine is not the end-all-be-all,” she said. “It’s coupled with those general protection measures, as well: Practicing good hand hygiene, avoiding those people who are sick, and not touching your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands.”

Springfield resident Lindsay Faulker, a divorced mother of six, one of whom is deceased, said she and her children have come down with the flu after getting flu shots in the past, but she suspects they didn’t get as sick as they would have without the shots.

After waking up with a fever of almost 104 degrees at 1 a.m. Feb. 3, Faulkner’s 1-year-old daughter, January Horn, was diagnosed with the flu but was feeling better later in the week after several oral doses of the anti-viral drug Tamiflu prescribed by Dr. Nicole Florence of Memorial Physician Services.

January received the recommended two-dose regimen of influenza vaccine for young children in the fall, her mother said.

“The statistics really amaze me on how many people don’t get the flu vaccine,” said Faulkner, 40, a manager at the Illinois Department of Transportation. “It’s a precaution. It’s an extra step to protect yourself.”

Faulkner said her advice to other parents is: “Do what you feel is right for your family. I don’t tell people to be vaccinated. More than anything, wash your hands and cover your cough.”